Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Some Student Poetry

I'm not poet or critic of poetry but, I was a little surprised by this piece from one of my students. I think he was assigned to write something about Calcutta.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Trip Plans

I have scheduled the following flights for the forthcoming holiday month.

Boston to Salt Lake City
5:02 pm - 8:35 pm
Salt Lake City to Boston
9:40 am - 4:12 pm

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Photos from New York

This is of course one of the so-called needles of Nefertiti. A total misnomer by my way of thinking in that it is a monument to Ramses. Which one I cannot say though it has a sort of interesting formula for the text calling him "Horus the bull" at the beginning of each column of text. I found this in Central Park and at first thought it looked like it was a cement replica but, low and behold it's granite. Upon discovering that it was the real thing I was a little distressed at first because the first face you can see in the little area where it was put up has most of the inscription worn off of it. I feared that it had suffered all that damage by being moved from the nice protective desert to the acid rain of the east-coast of the US. Turns out however that it had been too worn to read on that side since the time it was first placed in NewYork apparently as a sort of gift from an Egyptian government official during the late 1800s. I played a few tricks with photoshop to make the inscription more legible but, I'm not sure that in this size version of the picture you can see that on this side of the obelisk the writing is almost perfectly intact.

This is a huge wooden mask we saw in the American Museum of Natural History. It was a pretty cool mask but I thought I liked it most for the fact that one of the names for it was the "Fun Mask." It's the sort of thing that starts a chain reaction of thought through Peter Murphy's cabaret version of "Fun Time" to the discovery of one of the coolest things I've seen in a while: Special Peter Surprise If only Keegan were here to share the joy of this one.

This here is a photo by Jed of a pond in Central Park. Isn't it lovely?

My obligatory picture of the Statue of Liberty. The smog you see is all quite real. Here I imagine her not so much as welcoming new people to a free country as waving good-bye to all of us as a society for deserting her as a principle.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Issue of School Choice

I am frankly very disappointed in the vibe I’m getting that Utah voters are turning around and deciding to revoke implementation of the voucher system. If you are planning to vote on this issue I think that the first thing you should do is read HB 174. It has come to my attention that there are people on both sides of this issue who are promulgating exceptionally nasty and deceptive misinformation in order to lure people their respective ways. I’ve heard that the media debate is surprisingly intense. I’m sure you already know that this is a huge experiment that the rest of the country is watching closely and people in other states have been contributing lots of money to weigh in for which ever side they support.

As for trying to make some kind of fair or insightful argument for why I think you should vote for it… I cannot at the moment do a very good job. As I look at this bill and consider all of my experience working in schools this whole thing looks like a no-brainer to me. I cannot find one honestly good substantial reason for the general citizen to vote against this voucher system. The way I see it is that it boils down to exactly one issue. What do you imagine the role of a school is? If you think schools should be maximizing learning you must maximize the potential for choice. If you think schools should function to control and regulate the behavior of young people so they pop out regressed towards the mean in everything they do, then vote to support the hegemony of public schooling. If you honestly believe in the fact that humans are all unique individuals with unique sets of talents and weaknesses then it should be plain to you that all of these people have different educational needs. No single model of school can meet the needs of everyone. It is not logically feasible. It is a road to assuring mediocrity, which as I translate it means wasted human potential. But, some honestly believe that is what our society needs. We need to put everyone together all the time, at every level, and for every academic task. If we do this, then everyone will suck together and no one will be able to point and say, “Hey it’s not fair, those black kids are doing better than those Hispanic kids!” (I'm going to refrain from my diatribe about race and the obfuscation of cultural relativism.)

Many are trying to put the impression across that the only flavor of private school is the blazer and tie prep school. This is very, super, friggin’, wicked wrong, the place I work being an extreme example. It is also a perfect example of another reason people need to be able to have choice in where they send their kids for school. Some kids have special learning needs. There are many kinds of such needs. The popular thing these days is to try and force every classroom teacher to learn how to work with and provide what’s needed for all of these needs. This is unreasonable. Just as trying to force the same learning situation on every bloody student makes them mediocre, doing this to teachers makes them mediocre in what they can provide for your kids. I have realized in my own development as a teacher that I have the potential of going from absolutely brilliant to bumbling moron in about 7 minutes, the time it takes for the periods to change and for me to get another batch of kids with completely different learning needs. (These days this is more like seven minutes for me to get into my lesson for the day. Different rant for a different day.) Private schools have a power that the public schools tend not to have: specialization and sometimes specialization in providing services for students with special needs.

Part of the magic secret here is something that I think is going to become my slogan or mantra or catch phrase or something: learning is voluntary. You cannot force someone to learn. You can encourage and provide opportunities. You can even encourage to the point of torture but, ultimately learning is an act of will. As much as possible I suggest letting individual students and their families exercise that will, especially when it comes to something that influences a person’s life and happiness as much as their education does.

So… it’s up to some of you folks. What’s more important: maximizing human potential or universal conformity?

Forgive me if certain parts seem kind of hysterical or confusing, I'm famished and not functioning very well. Also I want to point out, this is open for debate. If you think I'm wrong and have some argument that you think is convincing post it up here by all means. Be forwarned that I will gladly listen, discuss, and refute where appropriate.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Casual Update

What’s going on in my life right now that’s worth writing about? Not much I’m afraid. There are a couple of highlights I could mention I guess.

At work we’ve been low on students so folks have been forced into taking extended time off. Because I’m a teacher and my work is not optional I’ve been kind of protected from this. This is something that has been convenient but I feel kind of bad about. This is especially so because I have enough vacation time that I’ll hopefully be taking a trip to New York City for Thanksgiving and then have three week vacation for Christmas. I could take some time off and let someone cover school for a bit but… I don’t know.

Last weekend the ward had a trip up to Camp Joseph, that’s in the Sharon VT area supposedly the old Smith homestead up there. I had the responsibility of making sure people had tents to stay in which was kind of obnoxious due to folks not sharing info with me about whether they needed space or had extra space. Nonetheless it all seemed to turn out okay.

Sword practice is going okay. I may have mentioned earlier that I’ve moved on from the defense series to the attack series. The attack forms are pretty fun. The last week I was off the island I learned my 22nd form. I like it but it has a couple things I haven’t figured out yet. Between forms 21, 22, and some kind of yoga-ish classes I’ve been taking from one of my sword teachers I’m finding out what kind of problems decades of slouching has caused for me. Somehow or other if I want to make a mastery of these techniques I’m going to have to learn to walk with my back up straight. Yikes.

The plants are doing well. The cashew tree has a whopping 10 leaves with another on the way on top. It also has some nodes appearing that suggest branches will be forming soon. I’ve moved my tomato plant indoors. I’ve of ancient times heard rumors that under the right conditions tomatoes are perennial so, I’m going to see if I can make that happen. Also, I brought home a venus flytrap from work. The kids were abusing it rather than taking care of it so… I’m going to see if I can get it pretty big and durable and take it back out there. So far it’s got about 4 or so of those little gadgets they catch the flies with but it hasn’t caught anything. Some of them are surely still too small and immature to work, and it might be that all of them are still.

In the cooking universe I’m deeply thinking about going back to getting set up to make beer. Oh the scandal, I know. But as for what I’m actually DOING, I’m making a lot of pizza. I’m trying to come up with a recipe for sauce that will cause the taster to faint for its deliciousness. Also I’m getting stoked for all the fall pies. I’m going to go back and try the pumpkin from the actual pumpkin with bourbon… so good. And I’m going to make advances in the apple department. I’m going to try and come up with a caramel curry apple pie. Oh yeah. Delanie’s fancy schmancy curry chocolates may have ruined me. I’ve got to figure out a good way for increasing my caramel amounts though. My mouth is watering thinking about it.

I tried a while ago to develop a contraption for distilling volatile oils out of various plant materials. I was thinking of specifically bayberry leaf because there’s a ton of it on the island and it smells really surprisingly good. It seems like the kind of project that would be cool for the kids too but, I’ve had little luck. One of the things I’m seriously considering in this vein to try now is to modify a stovetop espresso maker. They work by a different principle but I think if I cut a certain piece off and successfully seal the lid I might pull something off. I don’t know, it still seems kind of sketchy. I may just have to give in and buy a glass apparatus and threaten the kids with major fines if they break it.

Speaking of distilling, I decided for personal entertainment purposes to start saving my sourdough hooch until I have enough to distil it. There’s a contraption I saw on the internet using a big kettle and a wok full of ice for distilling Franzia. I figure the same could work for me considering I don’t want it to drink or anything, it’s just taking a while to save up enough hooch. I need like a half gallon or so and I’ve been getting about ¼ cup per week off of my culture.

I think that’s about all I’ve got to report or at least care to right now. I hope you enjoyed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Morning Sporting Event

Do you remember how to play horse? I might have eternally forgotten except that we had a rousing game on the island Wednesday. You see, basketball was something I played a bit of when I was quite young. It was fun sometimes and frustrating sometimes for several reasons, not the least of them my diminutive stature. Anyway, I was in junior high school, probably 8th grade though I forget for certain. At that time a certain something began happening to the bodies of my peers that made the stature issue of rapidly increasing concern. I don’t remember why I wasn’t playing myself but, one day in gym class, I was watching a game from the sideline. There was this kid who was at least a head taller than who dribbled in for a lay-up. When he was about to jump and shoot he crashed into a substantially larger kid who was guarding the basket. Now I say “crashed into” but it was more like “bounced off of” and he fell directly to the floor with the ball rolling slowly across the key. Something about the way little David bashed himself against that wall of human flesh penetrated my mind in a way that few things have and I decided then and there that whatever God had made me for it was not this game. As a consequence I’ve seldom played since and then only when pressed to. That being said I’m sure you have some idea why I might have altogether forgotten to play horse had I not been in fact pressed by my job and played with the boys the other day.

Having not had great skills in the first place and certainly not maintained what I had I was the first person out. This was especially the case as Matt (Yes! I get to use code names again!) was in line before me. I didn’t know this about Matt but it turns out he’s a pretty good ball player who has a pretty good sense for the whole calculus of the game. One of the first things he did was ask if I was right- or left-handed. Telling him was a mistake because then he made every shot left-handed. These weren’t regular shots either. Everything involved some weird angle, or required putting the spin just so on the ball, or shooting without seeing the basket. My only hope was that a couple of times he made them complicated enough that he missed them himself. It was nowhere near good enough for me to last however.

Anyway, one by one people were shot out, mostly by Matt until no one was left except Percy. In order to appreciate the rest of this you have to know something about Percy. He’s a tall lanky kid but may be in the second to last place of all kids I’ve known on the island for motor coordination. In other words he’s about as awkward as they get. But because he had been the last in line and Matt was first he had been protected through the game and had not acquired any letters. It was thus that the competition began when Percy shot from the top of the key and made the basket. Matt failed to duplicate and got his first letter. Percy missed his next shot (not dexterous) but Matt missed his as well. They went back and forth a couple of times when Matt finally chose a shot he could make without too much trouble and against odds Percy made the shot himself. Matt became very concerned about this situation and his shooting suffered for it. The two went back and forth making odd shots but somehow Percy kept up and the two were neck and neck. Finally it came down to the last letter. Who would get the ‘e’? Matt made a left-handed lay up that required bouncing off of the right side of the backboard. Percy had been missing this sort of shot so it seemed to be done. He dribbled up and nearly tripped over himself but the ball went in. Matt’s next shot was an underhanded “granny” shot from very close to the basket but he missed and Percy got a free shot. He stood up next to the key on the left side and made a casual jump shot. In the ball went, and the line of players who were out made slight gasps. “Don’t let it get in your head, Matt” somebody said. He got into position to make the shot and the ball hit the front of the rim rolled off to the other side. Percy won.

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Story About Sword Training

One of the great challenges in trying to keep up on my sword training since I moved out of the temple is finding good places to practice that are near my new home. There are two main requirements for this: enough open public space, a relatively low traffic unexposed location. From my early days of studying martial arts I learned that there are a lot of people in the world with strange ideas about it, ideas I do not fully understand, that result in them harassing you about it. I think it might have something to do with what people think of as the audacity or arrogance of the martial arts student. Their feeling may be, “How dare this guy walk around claiming he knows karate! He’s nothing special.” I’m not sure what it is. It still confuses me but I’ve learned to try and keep my hobby under wraps as much as I can, at least among people I don’t know or trust. (There’s an additional story about how this complicates my life on the island but that is not for here now.)

So anyway, it took me a little while to figure out some places where I could train around here and all of them are a little bit of a hike from my house. It is perhaps less convenient than I might have hoped but not too bad. Part of the trick with these training locations is not just the place but the time of day. There’s a certain school nearby where if I go really early on a Saturday morning or late on a week night there’s a bit of lawn and parking lot I can swing my sword around in. There’s another place along an abandoned railroad behind and abandoned warehouse that is very private all day during weekdays but becomes a spot at night where underage folk seek that privacy to smoke and drink. Another spot I found is a seldom used park near a highway where most of the time cars are flying by fast enough they don’t seem to see what I do out on the lawn.

One day I went to train in this location and came to realize that the issue of timing applies there as well. I guess it must have been during the afternoon rush hour. The traffic got backed up and instead of flying by a few drivers became an audience. Concentrating as I was on my forms I didn’t notice until I heard someone shouting from the road. I didn’t quite get what he said at first. So between forms I heard more clearly, “You’ve got to be joking! You’ve got to be kidding us! What, are you crazy!?” So there it was, my first heckle and a reminder why I hide to do this stuff. I kind of looked for the guy out of the corner of my eye as I went to do my next form just to be sure he was directing it at me. There he was, with his head hanging out of his window and an angry expression on his face looking at me and shouting “You’ve got to be kidding us! What are you crazy!?”

He drove on and I have to confess this sort of itched in my mind for a while. Two things sort of stuck out for me. First of all, who is this “us” he keeps referring to? Is this guy presuming to speak for everyone else on the road? Did he somehow come to think that I was out there training with the hope of benefiting him with a show? Mostly I was just confused as to why he’d even care enough to say anything at all.

It was as I tried to continue in this confused mental state that my next distraction came. this day. A couple of apparently Chinese folks came to the park with a little kid. The kid was also fascinated with what I was doing but in a much more positive way. “What are you doing? Why are you fighting?”, he’d ask. He kept hanging around me getting sometimes dangerously close to getting clobbered. I had a couple of short sticks with me in addition to my sword and I gave him one to play with. I told him, “You can play with this one but you’ll have to stay at least this far away so you don’t get hurt, okay?” He agreed and what I thought might become a sword for him instead turned into airplane wings. Oh well.

Let us just say I don’t practice there during rush hour any more.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Retreat

So… I took the train and made a three mile hike carrying my eight days worth of clothes etc down to the center. I had recently purchased a new bag so that I could fit one of my full sized swords in it. I thought training might be appropriate and having not had a chance yet to talk to my director I took the sword in case. It turned out that he encouraged my sword training and this was a form of meditation that provided a couple of insights useful to the retreat.

The center (http://www.campioncenter.org/index.htm) is a rather large building and is currently used primarily as a residence for aging or hospitalized Jesuits. When it was originally built it was a school for training novices to become Jesuit priests. It has a nice big chapel with a dome and a half dome in the middle front of the building. The grounds are quite large and are used by retreatants for meditative nature walks.

When I arrived the director’s secretary, a woman I had talked with trying to get set up with this retreat, took me up to my room. It was one of the old dorm rooms of the Jesuit school. Eventually I met my director Fr. Mattaliano and he scheduled to meet with me each morning at 10 am. Our morning meetings consisted of him asking how my meditations and prayers of the previous day went and me telling him as I felt it appropriate or useful to do so. We would then discuss the potential meanings and importance of the things I observed in my own thoughts and feelings. Then he would sort of assign me passages of scripture to read and a direction for meditating on them. He would also direct me to pray for what he called a grace, which in Mormonism we might call a spiritual gift. An example of the type of grace he would suggest praying for might be a deeper understanding of some aspect of God’s love in a certain context. He would of specify the aspect and context. Then I would try to do it and we would talk about it again.

I found this interesting and useful for a couple of reasons. First, we discussed things in my spiritual experience that I very seldom have talked about with other people. It was sort of like having someone else there to listen to my thoughts and reflect them back at me in ways that helped me to see what was going on with a bit more clarity than I could have accomplished on my own. In the Zen temple this is not something we got much chance to do as discussing things experienced in meditation was pretty discouraged. Why this is the case has something to do with sacredness but, I think there is more to it than I understand. I have experienced some difficulties in having discussions like this with people who are LDS too, I think particularly of my mission but at other times as well. Part of this I think has to do with a strange sort of cultural corruption of our faith where people are afraid to believe in taking instruction from the Holy Ghost. It’s sort of like a denial that we as common random individuals, “non-prophets,” might have interesting and important revelations. The other part of our difficulty may lie in not having much in the way of training or teaching on how to have these conversations. Not knowing some appropriate method, we may feel inordinate fear or hesitation to having these sorts of dialogues.

The second major benefit I found from having spiritual direction, as it is called, was to be directed. The way I know the scriptures is different from the way that he knows them. Of course he’s trained to do this stuff and has been through a formal and rigorous theological education but that’s not really what I’m referring to. The scriptures that have the most interest to me, that I know well, and the sorts of interpretations I’ve put on them are different than those of my director. So, when he hears about my meditations and assigns me passages, he is doing it from his background and experience. Because it is different from mine it offers me a new perspective on the issues at hand, or his suggested prayers and meditation offer me a new perspective on old scriptures. I found this to be valuable as well.

Now, some may wonder about the Jesuit aspect of this whole experience. Now because of my knowledge of St. Ignatius, the Exercises, the way that it seems Jesuits seem to have a certain thing for schools, education, and the sciences, as well as an evangelical function I have felt a certain kinship or relationship with them. To some degree I wondered if this trip might not further tempt me with the idea that I had played with a little of joining their order. Somewhat to my surprise it did exactly the opposite. Being surrounded by these men, who had so dedicated their lives to the service of God as they understood it, I realized that I could never do it. On the grounds there is a cemetery for Jesuit fathers that they suggest walking through as a sort of meditation where one can contemplate the number of people who have served as witnesses of Christ. However, this is not at all how it felt for me. The identical grave markers in perfect rows gave me a sense of extreme loneliness. These were all men whose lines had ended. They were not with their ancestors, they had no descendants. It was quite sad. As I saw them around the center and overheard them talking in the dining hall I had much the same impression: theirs was in many ways a life of loneliness, grandfathers with no grandchildren.

Now as for the content of my meditations… let us say that I feel the experience was a good one. I learned new things and sort of relearned things I’d forgotten. It has also been interesting spending these last few days in the wake of the retreat because I see with greater clarity the meanings of the things I derived from my meditations and by and large what I have to do about them. I found a lot of my vulnerability exposed to myself and certain of my strengths, things I depend on daily but don’t give much thought to. A greater appreciation of these things and a desire to grow in strengths by allowing myself to experience vulnerability may be a fruit of this experience.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Cashew Tree

So, it has been over a year since I first got the idea to try and do this and at long last I have had some success. Below is a cashew tree seedling, I sprouted in my room. I'm excited enough that I'm posting this before I talk about my retreat. Normally I'm opposed to naming inanimate things but in this case I'm going to make an exception so, I'm offering anyone with ideas a chance to discuss names for a cashew tree.

Though, I've discussed this with some people I should explain part of the reason I decided to try to grow a cashew tree. First is the obvious: I like cashews. Second: When I first read about doing it, I thought it to be a rather unique, interesting, and cool thing to try. Third: I found out that the cashew tree grows a fruit sometimes called a cashew apple that you can never buy in stores because when it is ripe it is too delicate to withstand any packaging or shipping. You have to have the tree to eat this forbidden fruit.

When I tried this before it failed for a couple of reasons. First New England isn't all that terribly sunny in the summer compared to Utah. My mistaken assumption. Also, I think I may have overwatered them. Apparently these guys like the desert. So, I think I planted 7 or so seeds then and got nothing. This time around I modified a sort of cabinet so that it is covered with reflective insulation on the inside and rigged a fluorescent coil light that comes encased in a plastic device that alters the light spectrum that's emitted to imitate natural light. I planted the seeds in some little contraptions designed to water the plant without human attention (important considering my job) with lots of food and a special chemical called gibberellic acid that stimulates seed germination and stem growth. I rigged the whole thing with a timer so that the seeds (and now plant) get 13 hours of sunlight a day. And.... voila. If you look closely at the picture you can see the two cashew-shaped cotyledons.

It's supposed to be a year or so before it starts to produce fruit.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Before the Retreat

So, today is kind of a special day for me. I'm going on my vacation in a couple of hours. I need to get a shower and pack a couple more things. But then it will be done. I'm going on a meditation retreat to a little Jesuit center near here. I will be spending hopefully 8 days engaged in religiously oriented meditation under the direction of a Jesuit priest. He is the director of the center that provides such retreats and after talking with me on the phone he decided to direct my retreat personally. I'm not sure exactly why but, I think it may be that I'm a confusing and unusual case.

When I tell people about this vacation I tend to get one of two responses. Either A) "You're a freak. Why would you ever want to waste your time doing something like that?" This is a response that is pretty typical at work. Or B) "That sounds pretty cool. I think it's really great that you are the kind of person that could both want and actually follow through and do something like that. " I have my suspicions that those in group B are polite members of group A but... oh well. I have been wanting to go on such a retreat for several years, ever since I studied the founder of the Jesuit order or Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and his Spiritual Exercises. The very concept of a spiritual excercise intrigued me, and I look forward to giving this a try.

So anyway, I'm hoping to have a valuable learning experience and will be sure to post my reflections when I return.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Answer for Surly Temple

Why am I opposed to a law which requires kids to stay in school to the age of 18? There are many reasons and so far I’ve not had quite the chance I desire to articulate them in a way that I want to send on to relevant legislative individuals. And even now I’m not sure how I ought to articulate them all. A lot of it has to do with my reasons for thinking that our system is evil and bad in the first place. It follows that I wouldn’t want to require anyone to spend up to two more years undergoing this sort of education than they might otherwise.

A major piece of my opposition is rooted in a belief in good old-fashioned freedom and self-determination. As it is now, a 16-year-old student may with the permission of parents withdraw from school. Students may do this for many different reasons but, one way or another the students and parents make a determination that schooling is not consistent with the said student’s life goals and prefer to do something else with these years. What they do, as long as it is legal is up to them. It could be home-schooling. It could be entering the workforce. It could be any number of things but ultimately it is the exercise on the part of the individual families to pursue happiness for themselves. To pass this not only violates this right, it insults all parents and students in the state by claiming that they are not competent enough to figure out what to do with their own lives.

The case of one of my students always comes to mind when I think about this issue. He had dropped out of school before entering our program. He had some very serious behavioral problems that made it near impossible for him to function in a classroom. Forced to take school, as it was part of our program, he experienced limited success and was frequently a deficit for his influence on other students. In a traditional school, in a traditional classroom it would have been that much worse. Required to stay in school by the law he would be the sort of person to bring drugs and weapons onto school campuses. That is assuming he would even bother going to school at all. Because he is required to go to school, getting a job would be out of the question because any employers would be complicit in his truancy. This means a kid with no self-control and a great deal of free time on his hands.

Part of the assumption posed by this legislation is that it is possible to somehow force a kid to learn stuff. This line of thinking annoys me a great deal. Learning is voluntary and a student who is not motivated becomes both a wasted investment and an impediment to the education of others around him. When you have a kid that has been to school (as all have) and has had little success and a lot of frustration you can expect that he will develop a certain amount of resentment towards the society that is doing this to him. If you take away his last recourse to choose another path for himself and criminalize his potential means for finding satisfaction you have galvanized this resentment and have significantly increased his capacity for deviant, even criminal behavior.

Now, it has been suggested that there ought to be a place in the school system for such kids, like mechanic school, or something. I agree that there ought to be and if more of such choices were available I would be less aggrieved by this bill. The problem is that there are very few, and those that do exist are very selective of their students. Boys like mine (those I might suggest need it the most) tend not to be able to get into such programs because they refuse to enroll kids with a history of truancy, drug abuse, criminal behavior, etc. Now the law in question provides funding for investigating the possibility of increasing the numbers of internships, school-to-work programs, and possibly even increasing the availability of technical high schools. The problem is that it imposes the requirements before the investigation of these sorts of programs is finished. Note that it is the investigation. We aren’t even close to talking about actually increasing the range of services provided. We are merely talking about talking about increasing the services. I believe the saying goes “putting the cart before the horse” or something like that.

Anyway, these are few bits and pieces, odds and ends for reasons I am opposed to this legislation. I am about to read a book that proposes an hypothesis that I’m interested in because I suspect that if it is not on the right track it might represent a perspective in this discussion that doesn’t get much voice. It’s called “The Case Against Adolescence.” The primary thesis is that the social roles of teenagers has been infantilized through history. This means that the competence of adolescents is being under-estimated and that they have not been given the sort of responsibility that both satisfies their changing psychological needs and conditions them to perform as adults. I suspect there is a certain amount of truth in this but I’m not sure how much or what it would ultimately mean in the end. I’m sure that it would not support legislation that only extend this infantilization. However, I don’t know for sure yet and maybe I’ll comment on it after I’ve studied it more.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Call for Reviewers

In this state there is a bill that has been proposed to require students to attend school till the age of 18. This means that students will not be able to legally drop out at 16 or 17 anymore. I don't know if anyone who reads here will agree with me but I'm pretty opposed to this policy. Anyway, I'm trying to write a letter to the relevant legislators etc. to express the opinion that it shouldn't happen. I'm a little emotional about this issue and I cannot guarantee the quality of my writing. I'm going to have to come back to it but, if anyone is willing to volunteer I would like to e-mail a copy and get some comments before I send it out. Just post here or e-mail me if you are willing or interested. Thanks.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some recent student artwork

I think this piece conveys the free-thinking and innovation of current high school math students. Notice the artist's use of color in the flames constrasting the black and white in which the math book and teacher are depicted.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

False Curriculum Reform

The time has come for my latest rant on education. It has been observed so many times (I’m thinking primarily since the ‘80s) that there is some kind of need for us to improve something about the way we teach math and science in this country. Professors have been complaining about the skills students come to college with in recent years. A lot of testing has been done comparing our students to those in other countries showing that as a nation we have certain deficiencies. A lot of people in the schooling process (i.e. students, parents, and teachers) observe that low relevance in traditional and mandated curricula contributes to student apathy resulting in poor learning performance.

In order to respond to this lots of little groups have formed to produce curricula intended to be innovative, and reform oriented. These groups tend to be composed of university professors, researchers, educational administrators and others I couldn’t identify who often have three or four motivated charismatic individuals with the “brilliant idea” for making kids in public school learn the things that they want them to know when they get to college. Often they are people who’ve gotten some kind of government grant to do the job and the materials they produce are supposed to be made available to the public in a non-profit sort of way.

In the last few years I’ve looked at a lot of these sorts of materials and programs. I happen to be reviewing one for potential use in my school right now. The lot of them tend to be terribly rife with a certain set of problems that make them pretty much worthless.

The first and most obvious problem for anyone to notice is the production values of the curriculum materials. They tend to be paper backed at best and are often bound in that cheep nasty spiral binding you can get done at the po-dunk copy shop down the street. They are sometimes obviously printed from type-written material or your typical word processing software fonts and formatting. The black and white graphics are always blatantly the cartoons of an untrained artist or cheesy awkward computer clip art thingies. It’s the kind of thing you put in front of a kid and have already lost them because they can’t take this “fake” school work seriously.

Another problem that comes up pretty consistently has to do with the choice of content. For some reason almost all professors in the sciences think that kids in high school need to know about optical illusions. Why? Is it because they think that the illusions are engaging and will get kids interested? One thing it certainly doesn’t do is lead into any relevant topic that kids need to know in order to pass state-wide tests for graduation. It’s also too light-weight and obvious (having already been used several times in the elementary grades) to make it useful information when preparing high school kids for college. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s a piece of evidence for my “brilliant idea” theory of educational reform. (Maybe some day I’ll write a book about this theory.) If it isn’t the optical illusions it’s something else of similar caliber and relevance with some silly “high interest” hook: breaking rocks, being blind-folded and smelling grass, "imagine you were an alien from another planet", etc.

The thing that I find bothers me most though is something I think of as entrenchment. A lot of theory in educational reform suggests that students should be engaged in learning activities that are highly authentic. That is to say that students should be learning how to do real things in the real world. Almost all of these innovative curricula projects present themselves as being highly authentic and having a great deal of relevance. It kind of makes me sad to sense that these authors have a correct spirit in trying to produce this sort of learning material. The problem is they do not have the right kinds of heads and what they produce is horridly contrived and anything but authentic. For example one math book I looked at had a lot of great activities that kids could learn from. I thought several of the activities were interesting and engaging and I think they might have been usable. The problem is that all of the materials were put together in a way that stripped them from their authenticity because the authors were so entrenched in thinking about the problems in terms of “school.” For example one of the lessons involved students finding out something about the cost of bread in local supermarkets. But instead of contextualizing the exercise in market research, or humanitarian aid, or making a personal grocery budget the context for the project was: “Imagine your teacher asked you to find out how much bread costs…..” Dumb, dumb, dumb.

A curriculum I’m looking at right now is for teaching philosophy in middle school and high school. The way it is supposed to function is the students read a short novel where the characters are kids that encounter philosophical issues in their real lives. The chapters of the novel are then supposed to be used to engage students in philosophical discussion. The problem is the same. The story in the book is all about kids sitting around in school having philosophical discussions. Almost never do the issues come up in naturalized living contexts. Furthermore the characters are totally unrealistic and talk more like college professors trying to teach little kids about philosophy than like little kids trying to understand life and the world around them. It is yet another example of the “brilliant idea” and a curriculum that has the right spirit but the wrong head.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Place v 3.0

Well I've been here for a while already so, it seems kind of late to be talking about this now but I suppose I can do so anyway. I suppose I did it without telling a lot of people what was up. I decided to move out of Shim Gwang Sa for a lot of reasons, many of which I will not get into. Suffice it to say that I started to realize that living as a monk was not exactly creating the type of social life I needed or wanted. So, I got a place that is now technically outside of the town of Boston but allows me to get downtown considerably faster. The area is called Davis Square and it's on the edge of Somerville near the Tufts University campus.

The area is pretty good for my culinary obsessions. There are at least three Indian restaurants within walking distance. One is literally around the corner. Add to that a choice barbecue joint, and a couple of Tibetan and Thai places and you can start to get an idea how much trouble I'm in. This is not all however. There's a butcher, a farmers' market, a kitchen supply store, and an Indian grocer (which happens to be closer than the Indian restaurant) as well.

Kind of the sad thing is that in conjunction with my failure to post I've not had much chance for taking advantage of the benefits all of this provides. It has only been this week that I've done any cooking and it has of course been a lot of Indian food and a key lime pie. (I hope there is at least a little laughing and a little cringing when I say that.) I still have a bit to do to get used to my kitchen. That's something that just seems to be the norm every time I move. Every cabinet, every stove, every space seems to have a different feel to it and requires some adjusting.

This morning was kind of exciting. I was baking the pie rather early hoping to have it done before I had to leave for work this morning. Well, the smoke alarm went off. It seems that the oven needs some cleaning or something. Anyway, I was a little worried because I thought I had probably pissed somebody off. Fortunately nobody noticed. Lucked out.

I'm still studying the sword. In fact I just learned my 20th form a couple days ago. With the assistance of a friend I found a nice little spot nearby where I can practice. It's on this abandoned railroad behind an abandoned warehouse. It's this big trashed up place filled with pigeons and I train next to these to big rusty water tanks next to an overpass. It's pretty secluded which is nice so I don't get harrassed by people going by. But I enjoy the environment itself because it kind of makes me feel like a martial artist in a movie. You know the one: where the hero is training in secret to sharpen up his skills for when he's going to break into the bad guy's compound and rescue his girlfriend, little brother, and the sacred artifact that gives him magical martial arts powers.

The sad thing is that somehow I seem to have failed in some way to achieve one of my major goals of moving. I thought I'd have more free time and opportunity for socializing. This is overall I suppose technically true. But at the same time I find myself working for the school more with my time off which makes me feel like I'm not any better off. Ah well. What can I do?

Zones of Learning

Following is a little piece I wrote for my company newsletter. Kinda lame? Maybe.

According to the educational theorist Lev Vygotsky learning occurs in what has been called the “zone of proximal development” or ZPD. This zone refers to the relationship between a student’s current level of ability and a proposed direction of development. For our boys learning in the ZPD means being engaged in activities that are difficult enough that abilities must grow to accomplish them. At the same time, tasks should be easy enough that students can experience success. By working in the ZPD students can make efficient progress because they are both challenged and reinforced for their exertions.

Although this idea is pretty straight forward, the ZPD is not always an easy thing to find for students and teachers on Penikese Island. Because many of our students have missed out on school for one reason or another, they are frequently behind in their academic skills. Students are usually very aware of this and often feel a great deal of shame when asked to perform feats of scholarship that fall a certain level below that accomplished by their peers. Rather than feel this shame boys will often refuse to participate in school work especially when they believe that the teacher is treating them like they are “dumb.” This can complicate a teacher’s attempts to discover a student’s ZPD and can effectively make that zone smaller.

The story of Randy makes a good example of how with certain students the zone can seem to disappear completely. Randy came to us having ditched a lot of school and spending time in programs with little or no classroom learning. As a result he had fallen significantly behind in his math skills. Although he was of the age to be in 9th grade his math level was more consistent with 5th or 6th grade. Randy was given instruction and work appropriate to his ability level but would at times run into problems that were novel or confusing in some way. Whenever this happened, Randy would feel too ashamed to ask for help and would instead start yelling at the teacher. When the teacher figured out that the difficulty of the math was resulting in this behavior he offered the student an opportunity to review earlier math concepts and develop automaticity in areas that would make the current work less difficult. Again, Randy refused to do work that was easier in order to protect his self-esteem from the implication that he was “dumb.” On Penikese teachers acquire the challenge of finding ways to help students make academic progress despite limitations imposed by the boys’ preexisting perceptions, expectations, and emotional situations. It is among our goals to use this process in school as an instrument for helping students make progress in their overall treatment.

There is another zone of effective teaching that can be diminished on Penikese. In accordance with state and district requirements and with a desire to help our students pass the MCAS and obtain high school diplomas, our curriculum seeks to satisfy the goals of the Massachusetts Learning Frameworks. However, we can see from our students’ failures in other school settings that the Frameworks themselves are inadequate enticement for our boys to exert themselves in learning these skills. As a consequence, Penikese teachers work hard to find ways of meeting state goals in ways that have valence for our students. In other words the zone we try to work in is the overlap between student interests and the requirements of the Frameworks.

Unfortunately our students often come to us with a form of tunnel vision and have difficulty finding interest in any but a narrow range of things in life, let alone school. It has been known for Penikese Island teachers to prepare elaborate lessons loaded with learning opportunities that meet Frameworks goals that die in the classroom due to student apathy. Sometimes teachers create lessons with aspects that are so engaging that the real learning goals are frustrated. A recent example of this involved a teacher’s attempt to use Play-Doh in a lesson about fractions. The modeling material itself was so interesting to the students that they failed to engage in the math lesson preferring to create objects from their imaginations.

In spite of the difficulties Penikese teachers strive to meet these challenges and provide engaging and effective learning experiences for our students. We hope that in doing so we can enlarge our students’ zones of learning. As we succeed minds will grow and our boys lives will obtain chances for greater satisfaction.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Those who can, do. Those who can't,....."

Back in the day when I was going through the teacher training program there was a curious and hard lesson I learned about being in the field of education. I don’t really like other teachers. There may be a few exceptions floating around in the world but I can’t say I personally know any. I don’t like hanging out with them. I don’t like engaging them in conversation. I don’t like the way they talk to people around me. It’s pretty comprehensive.

There are a lot of reasons for this but I believe it boils down to one contradiction. People attracted to the field of teaching feel like they have some great knowledge or insight that they believe they have to impose on others but they tend to be afflicted with some kind of intellectual feebleness. Now it may be argued, and quite correctly that this applies to myself. I am as guilty of inflated ego and thinking I’ve got the huge brilliant idea as any other person who’s gotten into this business. Oddly, and perhaps inappropriately in knowing this I do not take discouragement but hope. It is a hope that both grows in depth and in term as I come to realize how much there really is to learn and how possible it is to learn it. (There's a little bit of Zen-ness, if you will, related to this that I will forbear going into for now.)

My critics will have already realized that I did not confess to being feeble-minded as well as arrogant, a point only too consistent with itself. But it is the issue of intellectual capacity and recent experiences I’ve had with it that have motivated this post. Recently my teacher training was resumed in an on-line format to the end of obtaining my license to teach in a special ed context or at least to keep the feds off my school’s back for a while. Personally for myself I don’t have a particular interest in special education. It doesn’t exactly jive with where I’ve imagined myself going over the next few years but as can be seen from my last post, studying it has enlightened me on several levels with respect to what I actually do have an interest in. A really important thing I’ve learned a lot about is the general intellectual quality of folks in education, a sort of reminder of what it was like to sit in classes with would-be teachers.

The first and most generalizable observation I made was that discussion board posting was pretty terrible. Without detailing the gratuitous spelling and grammatical errors, I found the vast majority of participants to be of relatively low quality. The very vast majority of writing did one of two things: state platitudes about the way things are supposed to be done based on the author's wealth of personal experience or regurgitate parrot-like things written elsewhere (either in the readings or other posts to the discussion board). This exemplifies perfectly what I’m talking about. They are so convinced they already know the answer no one approached the discussions with a questioning mind seeking to challenge any assumptions. They are both arrogant and feeble of mind. To flatter one’s self with the belief in being a critical thinker and then to so readily internalize everything the “authorities” say… to me it is among the most bitter hilarities.

Part of the course involved a group project, some kind of writing and lesson planning. During the first week of the class a couple of people posted with their ideas about what to do for the project. Honestly I didn’t like them too much. So, I kind of waited to see if anyone was going to agree or suggest something else. I’m not really motivated to take charge of groups where I don’t know any of the other people in them. Eventually, I had to go to the island. While I was away others posted and they sort of created a division of labor for work on the assignment. When I got back and read about what they were doing and stated my intentions to help with the project, I pretty much got the cold shoulder. This is a somewhat understandable situation but consistent with the usual teacher belief in self-superiority. It was sort of like, “if this guy isn’t going to be to class on time he will get no fruit cup.” The sort of consensus was that I would make final comments and that would be the extent of my participation. I felt a bit uneasy about this until someone posted a portion of the assignment as she had completed it. After reading it I went from uneasy to worried.

Now I want to clarify one thing. I’m a good enough writer to know that content exceeds mechanics in importance. The stuff that I read may have had some mechanical problems but it was the content that had me squirming like an electrified night-crawler. The lesson was supposed to be for a specific content area but nothing in the learning exercises related to it. It’s not that the components were bad per se they were just completely inconsistent with the proposed learning goals and stated function of the lesson. I posted my comments and waited for more to appear.

As the wait for material became prolonged and my group members posted to me about how I should only need to do simple proof-reading my anxiety increased. I feared I was about to be graded on the work of others, work that would make me feel very ashamed for its poor quality. So I posted again, almost begging that people offer their drafts for my comments. I was hoping that I could get early drafts so that major mods could be accomplished in time to produce good papers without unnecessary work. One of the group members wrote back chiding me for my concern and lack of gratitude that “all the work had already been done for [me].” Eventually this individual posted her share of the work commenting that she was very confident that it would at most require very minimal revisions. It was horrible.

First of all, it had many grammatical and spelling issues. There were many parts that were unintelligible as far their meaning. Add to that the fact that much of the language was adolescent in nature. The organization made no sense. It was as if she had taken bits of information from all over and then lumped them into random groups for fun. A lot of the information was very redundant. There were parts where I had a really hard time understanding exactly what it was that her sources had said. I looked them up for myself and my horror only grew. This person had made incredibly childish errors in interpreting the meaning of the texts she had read. She was so screwed up that she thought an essay among her sources was an empirical study.

I wrote my comments. And rewrote probably more than half the paper, still feeling that the thing belonged on a roll in a bathroom stall. It was so bad, I didn’t want to embarrass her by publishing it to the discussion board so I e-mailed it to her privately, warning that my critique was pretty harsh and asked for her response for improving the paper. She was pretty offended and reprimanded me for unwarranted perfectionism. “I don’t know what you think is so bad about my writing. It was good enough to get me my masters degree.” I almost cried.

She told me she had not read the whole revision, was attaching her limited comments, and then was off for a vacation. All of that would have been fine except that she did not attach her comments. So, here I was stuck with a paper on a topic I didn’t like, taking an approach I didn’t like, producing a revision my partner didn’t like. She didn’t even have the wit or grace to tell me what needed to be fixed before she disappeared in a self-righteous puff of smoke.

After returning from her vacation she posted nasty comments towards me on the discussion board and the teacher stepped in to moderate. Meanwhile, there was work to do on the other parts of the assignment. Their work was posted and it was not that bad but needed some real fixes. Although they were much less oppositional about having my suggestions, they were quite stubborn about not taking them. As I said, they already know what they are doing. How could anything I say further improve on their already perfect work? It’s preposterous. Ignore the fact that my comments are about things like internal inconsistency, logical errors, and truly confusing instructions. My observations aren’t substantive enough to pay attention to. Either that or these educators of children don’t understand consistency, logic, or clarity in communication.

So, these are the sorts of people teaching our youth. No wonder the question is seldom asked, “Is our children learning?” How can they learn from people who don’t know how to learn themselves? I don’t believe kids can learn how to read good and do other things good if their teachers can’t read good themselves.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Some Thoughts on Being an Agent of Oppression

My strange sort of fanaticism towards education reform has likely irritated my friends over the years. On one of my phases in this process I pestered everyone with the question, “What do you think should be the goals of our education system?” This was during a time when it occurred to me that one of the great problems in our education system is the fact that governmental institutions and much of the public want to burden schools with accomplishing a huge range of tasks. Frankly it was a range of things that goes way beyond what ought to be expected of any organization as small as a school is. Consider the task of trying to provide a “free and reasonable” education that will prepare every student within a certain geographic region, regardless of SES, native intelligence, linguistic and cultural background, or disability status to go to college, enter the vocational workforce, and participate in a democratic society. Muse upon accomplishing this under the constraints of arbitrary state mandated curricula, a variety of standardized testing regimens, students’ capacities and inclinations as human beings, and parental expectations. Do not fail to remember the fact that there is nothing in the universe that guarantees overlap between any of these factors let alone consensus. Add to this the requirements placed on schools that they provide not only mere academic curricula but opportunities for sporting, social activities, and counseling. When I think on it, I conclude that it is actually quite natural for schools to have become something that many people feel are garbage. Who could possibly orchestrate this sort of mess successfully? Some authors have claimed that compared to other organizations and cultural institutions schools have undergone surprisingly inadequate reforms appearing in form and function much as they might have fifty or even a hundred years ago. This horrid lack of vision and clarity of direction is perhaps first among a range of factors resulting in this retardation.

Whether or not this is so, the resulting product is a form of oppression inflicted upon the students in these schools and ultimately upon the great community that is released from their smothering socialization. You may ask what oppression I may be referring to when speaking of institutions that facilitate learning and climbing of the social ladder. Part of my answer would be that the so-called learning provided by schools is more illusory than real. Furthermore the career advancement achieved this way, rather than truly qualifying people for the work they do, creates in our society an addiction to the system and reinforces the indoctrination and oppression created thereby. The end results are self-perceived excellence in a reality of incompetence. (I'll talk about this more later when I post a rant about my recent experience with special educators in an on-line class.) People walk away with a belief that they understand their fields and are capable critical thinkers when in reality they've swallowed whole every bit of rhetoric and dogma that has been forced down their throats.

Lately my work with my students, my study for my special education licensure, and my reading from a little theorist called “Paulo Freire” have led me to the conclusion that I am in fact an agent of oppression for my students and consequently for society as a whole. Huzzah!

Part of what has underscored this for me has been working with the IEPs I referred to in my last post. One of the major components of an IEP is a set of goals determined to be appropriate for the given student and his suite of special needs. The goals deal with academic performance, socio-behavioral issues, and reference long term education and career goals. Two things about this process really stuck out for me. First, and perhaps most important in terms of my becoming an instrument of oppression, is the fact that the student almost never has any input regarding these goals. And when they do, it is frequently overridden by the various “agents of interest” who write these plans. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about the second grade here. I’m talking about 17-year-old kids on the brink of legal majority. I’m not only talking about kids too old to be sensibly left out of the process of making their life decisions, I’m talking about kids for whom this system didn’t work. Whether they are disabled or not there is something about them that doesn’t fit the mold and if our objective was to try and help them attain whatever kind of success we can considering their challenges we ought to be more vigilant in consulting with them on what that success should mean. Instead we almost invariably create programs that will try to force them back into the mold as best we can. What this tends to mean is that instead of helping or even letting them develop talents where they are able, we cut off a limb here and a digit there and shave off some of that part over there. And all of this is done under the pretense of what’s in the student’s best interest and providing a “fair” chance.

There’s a principle in this aspect of the IEP that cuts both ways. Just as its nominal function is to provide a mode of education suited to the individual student but in reality attempts to force a conformity, the fact that it is only provided for students with special needs reveals the oppressive nature of the education system. How can it be argued that only one small class of students deserve or can be benefited by an individualized program? Philosophically it is clear that the expectation is for the majority of students to willingly conform to a system simply because they are able. It ought to be reasonable to assume that all students are unique and educational resources should be equally in place to help them meet goals, build on strengths, compensate or overcome weaknesses. But the reality is that the students themselves are not the source of our established learning goals. The political battles for control of their minds is, the battles between business interests, parents, colleges, and government bodies. The debate over teaching intelligent design in schools is an example of this. Though everyone will claim they want children to learn critical thinking skills, when it comes down to it atheists and creationists alike will tend to choose indoctrination to their own paradigm before taking the risk that students may come to believe something else if allowed to study the issue out for themselves. The task of schools is not to develop diversity of talent but to enforce a narrow range and capacity for thinking.

The last bit of oppression I wish to discuss deals with what I see as an issue of human nature. Yes we are forcing all kids to become the same. But there is a reason that it must be seen as forcing in many cases if not most. It is because of the kinds of things we are trying to teach them. Frankly, how many of you in your professional lives have had to solve a system of inequalities lately? No one? Didn’t think so. And yet, one of my students has been working on doing that very thing all week. Can you imagine any reason for it? I can only vaguely imagine certain contexts where it could be used and they are contexts that a very diminished minority of students will ever end up in. So why does everyone have to learn it? Is it because if they spend more time learning algebra they will have less time to study things that would actually make them productive? Or is it to prevent them from developing disciplines of thought that would make them aware of their oppression and move them towards producing social revolution? I recently read in one of the Dune novels an idea about governments investing in learning and discovery. The gist was that governments must always curtail how much they invest in these things in order to maintain a stable society. If they did not, then people would discover or invent things of such magnitude and at such a rate that the government would be unable to maintain control of everything. Is there some unconscious fear residing in our society of letting our kids get too smart and learn too much?

The other component of this "forcing" we do to kids by the things we teach them has to do with their development. Taking myself for an example, in my high school days I felt much the same as my students in many ways about the type of things we were supposed to be studying in school. Using math as a most salient example, in high school I hated it. I believe that I was developmentally unprepared for it. It was not until I was about half-way through college that I reached a point that I could find doing math enjoyable unto itself, and even later that I found its usefulness sufficient to motivate me to study it of my own volition. We do not in our system listen very much if at all to what students are telling us about what kind of learning they can and need to accomplish most during their given stage of development. I hypothesize that the kind of learning high school students need is more about social life, developing independence, and morality than it is about factoring polynomials or identifying the organelles of a cell. That is not to say that there is no value in learning these sorts of things. I merely question the timeliness of it and its emphasis in what a kid is supposed to accomplish to get through school.

So there you have it. I’m an oppressor. I force kids to sit in a classroom and learn a bunch of stuff they have neither the interest nor inclination for. In many cases they lack the ability for it. And to make it all worthwhile, it is stuff they will never use in their lives after they leave my classroom. I’ve successfully created a lower class of individuals whose potential for contribution to society, however limited to begin with, has been completely squandered. And just so you know I did it all correctly, my students suffered through the whole thing. Huzzah!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Bureaucratic Nonsense

Seems like I’m venting a lot lately but here comes another one. When a student is being educated ‘specially’ his parents, people from his school, and other interested parties get together and create a little thing called an individualized education program or IEP. This IEP becomes a sort of legally binding contract on the school to provide certain accommodations with a set of goals specific to the student in question. It also describes accommodations required for testing the student that allows these students to more fully demonstrate their abilities (in theory) when they take the exam required for graduation.

Some months ago I administered the test to a certain group of students and before hand deliberately checked their IEPs, if they had them, for accommodations I was required to give them. I found that one particular student had a few accommodations but there was no mention of calculator use so, I forbid him use of a calculator on the appropriate portion of the math test. The student was a little surprised but, I told him what I had found and he did not argue the point.

A few weeks later our school heard back from this students parents who complained that he was not allowed to use a calculator. The school admin people called me asked what happened and I explained that I had read the IEP and found no accommodation involving calculators. I also said it was possible that it was there and I had somehow missed it but I did not believe this to be the case. I suggested they read the IEP for themselves and find out if there was an issue.

That was it, or so I thought for perhaps about three months. At that point, I was contacted again by the same admin person asking the same question. I gave him the same answer. I found myself a touch annoyed but having worked for the federal government I was familiar with bureaucratic garbage and wrote it off as such. The problem was that it didn’t stop this time. I kept getting bugged about what happened on this kid’s test and why didn’t he get to use a calculator. For weeks whenever I talked to someone in the office someone brought it up. I kept wondering, “What’s going on here? Have I totally blown something?” The parents were upset. My bosses kept bothering me, and when I asked if they finally checked the IEP to see what it said for certain, I was told that use of calculators was among his accommodations.

So… great. I screwed up and had to worry about this for some time. All the while in the back of my head I have this itch saying I had checked it and I could not imagine the page with the word “calculator” on it. Something isn’t quite right.

Anyway, I was in the office a bit early this morning and remembered all of this and decided I could settle the issue in my mind once and for all. I got out this student’s file and looked at his IEP. Well, calculator use was an accommodation on it, but it was not the same IEP I had read in there before. Low and behold, there were two IEPs in the file and only one of them mentioned calculator use on the test. It was dated as to when it was sent to us. It was dated AFTER I had already administered the test. Thank heaven I trained as an archaeologist.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Illusion?

I want to speak to the issue of free will. It is something that a lot of philosophers, theologians, psychologists and others who like to think “deep thoughts” deal with. Though I don’t personally like to be regarded in this group of people there is something about the issue that is very practical and pertinent to what I do in my job. It’s also pretty central to our experience and existence as human beings so, I make myself bold enough to venture.

In one of my favorite cancelled TV shows (the more I find out, the more I realize that this is the fate of almost all truly good television) called American Gothic the main antagonist, some kind of evil mystic named Lucas Buck speaks at times of “the illusion of free will.” Whether or not he actually believes this claim, it impacts people around him in ways that make them more susceptible to his social manipulation.

These days there’s a lot of research being done in the way of behavioral genetics that may seem to support this position and it may fearfully effect people in the same way. A great concern is the possibility that people hearing that there is a gene out there that determines things such as relationship infidelity, over-eating, or aggressive driving may come to believe they have the gene and thereby create a personal excuse for engaging in any sort of licentious inclination that occurs to them. As they do so they might say to them selves “It’s in my genes. I can’t help it.”

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. I think a lot of psychology has already created this sort of excuse for any kind of behavior you can think of. Though instead of referring to genes, people talk about having “a trauma history” or “a negative upbringing.” Before this was the saying that became a joke: “the devil made me do it.” There was a whole concept of Temptation with a capital ‘T’. But either way it goes, it results in human beings denying culpability for their actions by denying the existence of free will.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean to diminish the way that our genes or our experiences affect us. Nor do I want to deny the existence of powerful temptations on a spiritual realm. I think this is all real stuff but, I think that if we come to “believe” in it too much then we are pretty much screwed and screwing everyone around us. I think it is absolutely essential that we believe in our wills and certain things I’ve been learning from my studies of neuroscience have encouraged this point of view.

The brain is often compared to a computer. The problem with this model is that where a computer’s wiring is pretty hard and fast the brain’s wiring is not. It is a living changing thing. Just as your middle-school teachers used to say, “it’s like a muscle and if you don’t use it you lose it.” This may seem a bit trite but, it’s fascinating to me to think about the mechanism by which it comes about. One theorist compared it to the process of natural selection in that neural connections exist or cease to according to a use-based selection process. Connections that never get used get cut. It becomes biochemically inefficient for them to continue to exist. At the same time connections that are fired on a regular basis are altered to make them faster and more efficient. They also become locations when new ones are made to help carry the data processing load. This stuff is all pretty common knowledge I think but it tells us something about how free will works. We as conscious beings have the power and opportunity to make determinations regarding what neurons get fired, perhaps not by finding and firing some exact cell that we label in our heads, but by choosing the functions to which we put our brain.

To get a grip on this it helps to know something about what the different parts of the brain are and how they work. On the top of the brain, somewhat towards the front is a little strip running across brain known to be the part that processes all the sensory information gained through touching with the skin. There have been several studies involving people who’ve lost body parts that experience sensations in their minds where the lost appendage should have been. What frequently happens is that adjacent sensation processors start to take over using the now-unallocated computing tissue for it’s own uses. The result can be that when still active parts of the skin surface are stimulated the brain will interpret those sensations as being in the missing appendage. This sort of thing has been seen with stroke patients as well. When one part of the brain is damaged the adjacent parts can start to take up the function of the missing part. This happens as long as signals are being sent that demand the connections be formed.

I think this is interesting when considering free will because it says something about the magnitude of neuron change we can induce through use. This then tells us something about how much we can change fundamentally about our demons and trauma induced damages through an exercise of our will to use neuronal pathways we want to and neglect the ones we don’t.

So, how do we exert this kind of will? It is largely dependent on another part of the brain, that which is in the very foremost front, thus called the prefrontal cortex. Curiously the organ that provides us the most in terms of freedom of will has as its primary function suppressing freedom in the brain. The brain stem at the base of the spine and the limbic system in the middle of the brain create lots of feelings, urges, emotions, and other “gut” reactions that serve us well as human beings in many ways. But frequently they contradict greater goals or perspectives that are available to our prefrontal cortex. So, when you are sitting in that meeting at work just before lunch and your brain stem is telling you you're hungry and your amygdala is making it more urgent, your prefrontal cortex is telling them both to shut up and let you concentrate on that super important presentation your coworker is giving. Or maybe not but, I’m sure you get the picture.

A few studies have been done on the function of this part of the brain in Buddhist monks. Why? Because one of the main things Buddhists do is meditate. A big part of meditating is exercising the frontal lobes by monitoring your own internal thinking and telling lots of stuff in your brain to shut up. What they have found about this type of exercise is that it physically changes the inside of your brain to do whatever it is you want. Your prefrontal cortex can tell the part of your brain that likes to think mean thoughts to shut up and the part of your brain that likes to think nice thoughts to turn up the music. Consequently your mean bits eventually get hijacked by your nice bits. (Alas, there’s a bit of a kwixote joke in there.) The same kind of thing goes on all the time dysfunctionally when people wallow in self-pity. The more I indulge in thinking “I hate my life and nobody loves me” the more wired my brain becomes to think that and only that. Every time you add voice to it you increase the number of parts of your brain contributing to processing and working with that idea. Instead of just your emotion bits and your thinking bits going at it, your motor bits, language bits, auditory bits, etc. all join in the party. Increased signal load => increased neuron development.

Now, considering all of this I’m left with some big, vexing, and perhaps amorphous questions. One of the questions has to do with deficiencies in the matter of the prefrontal cortex itself. This is the case in some people who are diagnosed as ADHD. When they’re in that meeting there’s not much to say “shut up” with. So, what does this mean in terms of free will? Is it limited? Does there need to be deliberate work to increase the frontal lobe by hijacking other parts of the brain to do the work? Inasmuch as a person is in this state, how culpable do we hold them for impulsive behavior? It’s a big nasty mess. It’s also a nasty mess for me to think about in the context of my students. If we were to conclude that one ought to work to exercise to increase prefrontal function, do we do this with other problems, like meanness for example? Do we try and get students to buy into this stuff? They would have to for them to exert the effort to do it. How much treading then do we do onto other people’s free will even if its meaning and intent is to increase the amount of will they have?

Now there’s a glaring hole in my discussion here and it’s the one I don’t really want to think about right now because I’m not qualified but maybe someone else will, that is the issue of medicine in terms of chemical prosthesis and even surgery. Ugh, a sticky mess but one that is going to be highly relevant. A major example is the recent discovery of a little patch of brain that when damaged cured someone of their nicotine addiction. Anyway, I’ll leave stuff to someone who’s smarter and more in touch with it than I am.

If anyone would like to have an open discussion with me on these topics I would appreciate it. You can of course publish it here for all to read (something I encourage) but if you’d rather I’m open to just e-mailing or telephoning on the subject. Phew.

Here’s a link to a relevant article out of Time that some might be interested to read.


Monday, February 05, 2007

The semi-periodical invitation

I'm prompted by people finding my blog by doing web searches in recent weeks. If anyone is interested in getting an e-mail alerting you to when I've made a new post you can either post a reply here or you can e-mail me at jacobus_the_scribe@hotmail.com.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


There’s a Shim Gum Do master who sort of runs a school down in Pennsylvania somewhere. I don’t really understand the exact nature of the school. I’ve been wanting to visit it for some time out of a sort of professional curiosity. But, I think it’s kind of like a private school that is heavily influenced by the Buddhism. They have a full curriculum and the students can additionally study Shim Gum Do martial arts.

This last weekend a bunch of them came up for the bi-monthly test. A couple of them tested for their black belts. The principal of their school came up as well. He brought his son who also tested. They often make this trip and each time I find it interesting to see and talk to teenagers who are not my students, and kind of observe their behavior and interactions. I run a sort of compare/contrast in my head in-part because I know that my population doesn’t really reflect the majority of teenagers and I feel kind of starved for a norm reference to organize the way I think about and deal with my students.

On this particular trip something interesting really struck me that I’d seen in small ways before but never really appreciated. These visiting Shim Gum Do students have a sort of eagerness that I almost never see in my own boys. They want to learn the martial art. They want to participate in stuff going on around the temple. They’ll volunteer to do things. They have some of what I think I’ve heard the Zen master refer to as thirst, or hunger. So, the big question of course is “What accounts for the difference?”

One cause could be just a lot of background stuff that I cannot assess. The Shim Gum Do students are obviously not on the island because they probably haven’t done the kind of stuff that gets my students sent there. But I wonder if there aren’t certain factors that can be controlled to advantage.

The island program is philosophically a program of “choice.” That is to say a student cannot enter our school without first having been interviewed and indicated an intent, a desire, a decision to enroll. The problem is that this isn’t a very good description of what actually happens. For one thing the choice is often between the island and jail. It seems to me to be a little hard to make it more compulsive than that. But, other factors come into play as well: some of it real and some of it merely in the minds of the boys. For example they get pressure from all kinds of “grown-ups” including parents, social workers, ed advocates, probation officers, etc., etc., etc. Then sometimes the kids feel that certain aspects of the school were misrepresented and they end up feeling like they were more or less bamboozled into coming. Sometimes they even claim that case workers or parents basically forged their signatures to make them come here. I consider this situation in light of my own experiences as a teenager and I have to recognize that the very fact of compulsion could turn me from being interested into defiant if simply on principle. Those things I invested the most in were things that I felt wholly I had chosen out for myself.

A second controllable factor may be the issue of novelty. It has been reported in some ed psych text I’ve read somewhere or other that one thing that keeps a person interested and motivated to learn something new is when that something truly is new and not the everyday thing. Though they come from time to time the Pennsylvanian students are not here all the time and coming is for them something of a change of pace in their day to day school lives. It may be the very facts of getting away, sleeping in a different place, and seeing and interacting with different people that help to facilitate increased openness for learning experiences.
Part of the experience of learning martial arts is that there are certain goals that one is trying to achieve. Part of the goal is to get to the next rank. But some of the goals are more personal and internal. They might be athletic but they are also often psychological and spiritual. There is something intrinsically motivating about having goals to orient ourselves to motivate us for learning. This is something that is often missing in ordinary schooling. At many levels in traditional academic subjects the precise goals can be rather elusive to students (and frankly the teachers who have to teach them). And where the goals are detached, externally imposed, and ambiguous they do not satisfy the requirements of psychological proximity necessary to motivate engagement. Additionally, I believe the naturally occurring adolescent egocentrism makes the value of personal psychological and spiritual goals particularly salient. It is something that secular educational institutions would struggle to capitalize on and tragically so.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

My Frustration

Normally I'm not inclined to come here and vent in exactly the way that I'm about to. However, I'm in the middle of angsting about what I'm going to teach on the island this coming week. I have a goal, a sort of intent that I place behind every lesson I plan, and that goal is to get kids to think. It is something that from my point of view should be relatively easy and straightforward. There are an infinite number of terribly interesting questions and issues in biology that are worthy of deep and intense critical thought, even at what qualifies in the parameters of high school biology curricula. However.... Another goal is to try and make the lesson material relate directly to my students, make it relevant and interesting. So with these two goals in mind I have for some time been trying to set up my kids and the materials so that we can do a major study unit on the brain. You know, the brain. It has a certain novelty to it that adds to it's interest level. It is something that everyone has so how it works and what it does is terribly relevant to everyone. I would think this to be particularly so considering the fact that most of my students have learning disabilities which implies something that is working a bit outside the norm with their brains. That is also the case when you consider the meds they're on and the drugs they recreate with and are addicted to.

The problem is abstraction. If you want to learn and think about all this stuff in any kind of meaningful way that would be genuinely interesting, meaningful, etc. you have to be able to work with a lot of abstraction. Whenever we cross that line into the abstract I can guarantee that I will completely lose half of my students. Lately I've been trying to use concrete examples to demonstrate certain comparable genetic phenomena but my students don't get it. All they see is: yeah I'm mixing up and counting colored gaming chips and it has something to do with genes. But what they are representing in terms of the genes, the very real cellular, genetic, and population mechanics that this stuff is representing is going 110% over their heads. And despite doing things in a way that is as hands-on as I think it could possibly be made, in a way that would allow for any kind of real-time experimenting that the kids could deal with, it is still inadequate to getting them to cross that barrier and really SEE what in the world it is we are trying to talk about here.

At times, when I encounter this situation, my inclination is to shift gears to pick the whole process apart and get into the gritty details and break it into pieces and chunks small enough that the abstraction is simple enough that they couldn't help but understand it. The problem with this is the invariable outcome that reiteration and lack of context are going to make it all a big boring and irrelevant mess to my kids. How? How in the world am I supposed to make them care? For me it is all inherently interesting and the big picture is valuable and important enough to grind through the details (which sadly are interesting enough on their own). But also, I don't have the difficulty they do in trying to deal with the abstract so grinding through the details is a lot less effort for me. This has been the story time and time again. I can have them engaged doing stuff and not really learning anything or, I can fight like crazy and suffer to get unbelievably picayune but genuine thinking.

So, here I've been trying to put together this really cool stuff on genetics and behavior, highly relevant considering all the research that comes out in the news these days on this stuff, but I'm chucking the whole idea because I know that they can't deal with it. I'm going to go practice some kata and get some of the rage out of my system now.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Am I researching or am I fake?

Dominance hierarchies. They exist. They are a real phenomenon in the animal world and they are definitely a real phenomenon on the island. Whether it has proven more visible to me in my experience there because I get to live in the mix of it over and over again or because there is something about our students that makes the process more salient, I cannot at the present be sure. Recently I’ve been drawn to reflect on it a little more than usual because in my biology class I’ve been trying to teach about evolution with a focus on primate and human evolution (of course) and I’ve shown the kids a few videos about chimpanzee behavior. I have observed my students resemble our older cousins not only in parallel patterns of behavior but in specific actions. I find these facts fascinating in the extreme and simultaneously a “things men were not meant to know” kind of horror.

I have recently begun a discipline of taking daily field notes on the island. As I have in the past, I find it laborious and sometimes frustrating to realize how much data passes through my awareness that might be of critical value but manages to avoid documentation. Nonetheless I have managed to acquire a certain amount of information about dominance striving on the island in these notes over the past few weeks that I will draw from to continue my entry for today.

There was a certain study by Richard Savin-Williams that came out in 1976 about how adolescents form their social pecking-orders in a summer camp where several of the counselors were complicit in observing meal time, sporting, and other activities among the students. They found that high standing in the pack was most readily predicted by factors such as athletic ability, physical fitness, and chronological age respectively. This is pretty consistent with what can be seen on the island. However, I do believe that it is an incomplete description of what is going on. For one example, the fact of athletic ability is sufficiently subordinate to the perception of athletic ability. One of the most dominant people in the group is regarded as being very athletically able but, his field performance is substantially inferior to this regard. There are other components of his persona that feed his rank and as a result of this rank he is regarded as having all of these other attributes in high levels. Similarly another student demonstrates a certain degree of athletic ability in games and has a certain temporal age that should provide for a higher ranking position in the pack than he has.

So, what do I think is going on? Well there are a few natural phenomena that I’ve considered and is seems to me that the key to this question is intimidation. It should be no surprise but the real predictor of dominance, as with chimpanzees, has to do with one individual’s ability to cow other individuals into submission. It is pretty clear that fitness and athleticism are good markers of an individual’s ability to successfully perform acts of violence and thereby threaten others into complying with his desires. However other factors come into play as well and it is in exploiting these factors that some come to be more intimidating.

In one of the chimp videos we watched there were two brother chimpanzees. One was a little bigger than the other and was significantly more likely to bully around females in the group. However, he was the β because his brother had social tricks to help him always gain the upper hand. One of his tricks was a kind of display of his “power.” Chimpanzees before coming to a fight make a big deal of posturing in threatening ways to try and gain submission of the opponent without the risk of any real injury. This involves a lot of running around, screeching, and shaking trees. This stuff all makes a tense situation and in the state of heightened anxiety less dominant chimpanzees relent. The α in this group had a special trick up his sleeve of splashing around through water and smashing large rocks. Because this chimp was willing to “go there” where no one else would, he increased his intimidation potential to push him into the top slot past his larger more violent brother.

It is in this act of adding the special flavors to their interaction that α boys are able to intimidate their way into not only gaining the upper strata of the hierarchy but are able to change the discourse to increase their perceived athleticism. Now, some students clearly invest more energy and effort into being intimidating than others. It is in part due to this fact that there is the discrepancy that I described with the two students I mentioned earlier. This fact causes me to ask why this should be. How much of this divergence in behavior is the result of natural inclination and how much of it is learned?

One of the island events I observed that illustrated this issue pretty well is a game called “Fifty” that is played on the basketball court. Though I’m not really familiar with all the details and history of this game, I’ve been told that it is a popular one in juvenile detention and I think I might be able to see why. The rules of this game seem almost deliberately designed to facilitate dominance striving through intimidation rather than pure skill. There is nothing in it like team work and though some shooting skill is necessary, aggression is a more rewarded quality. It even has complicated procedures which would cause a kid who is winning, because he is a pretty good shot, loose everything to facilitate the advancement of someone more intimidating.

The thing that is interesting about this game is that it seems to differentiate between the two types of students. Some are more inclined to it than others. Some would choose to play it instead of basketball any day, while others who are equally interested in sports would prefer a traditional game. This preference seems to fall along lines of general interaction styles and social strategies where those who prefer “Fifty” tend to be those who rely heavily on intimidation to get by in life and are like the water splashing chimp more likely to “go there” and cross boundaries that make others in the group feel truly threatened. An element in it seems to be that on the one side boys are interested in who can beat who up and will form their ranks accordingly, while on the other side are the boys who function by really trying to instill fear and insecurity in the minds of those around them. They don’t want for you to merely know that they could, they want you to feel like they might.

So back to the question of nature and learning: In the face of the fact that the kind of fear and insecurity I’m speaking of is inconsistent with effective learning environments that allow for people to develop higher-order cognitive ability (i.e. everything I try to teach and a substantial part of what any behavioral treatment program should want to develop) can students who create such an environment be allowed to stymie the development of other students? Inasmuch as it is something that works for them, how much room do we have in a secular context to say that they should lose their strategies for the sake of others? If we did conclude that they require the corresponding moral education, how would it most effectively be administered? These are big questions and strange problems that I think may be at the root of solving some of the most pernicious and enduring social ills.