sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 22, 2016

By All Means, Houghton Mifflin, Sell Me Some Textbooks!

Filed under: education, politics — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:30 am

The latest undercover revelation by Project Veritas concerns Common Core.  They talked to two women, one in publishing, a Houghton Mifflin employee, and another — a teacher.  The publisher laughs about hating kids and only being interested in money, and the teacher explains that Common Core mandates a change in curriculum which requires new textbooks producing a windfall profit to publishers:

In O’Keefe’s latest video, Dianne Barrow, the West Coast Accounts Manager for Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt was caught on camera saying, “You don’t think that the educational publishing companies are in it for education do you? No. They’re in it for the money. The fact that they have to align the educational standards is what they have to do to sell the books.”

In our elementary school word problems are now called “story problems”, a local charter school no longer uses the word “student” — their students are “learners”, you see.  So I know about aligning the educational standards.

My feelings about  Common Core are generally negative.  I don’t believe this country needs a uniform centralized educational program, especially if its content is questionable.  I recently wrote about Common Core math, and since then I talked to some local homeschoolers who advised buying Singapore math textbooks.  “Make sure it doesn’t say “Common Core compliant” on the cover,” I was told. “Because by the time the program went through the American educational bureaucracy, it’s garbage”.

My biggest problem with American education however, are lazy, incompetent teachers (not all of them of course) who neither understand the material they are supposed to explain to students nor willing to take time to figure out how to teach it.  Pretty much every successful child we know is partially homeschooled — and I live in a town known for good schools.

Having said that, Common Core left our teachers out in the dry.  Aside from math, our kids don’t have any textbooks, and math textbooks are used sparingly.  Teachers would very much like to have textbooks, but there aren’t any.

On top of that, our students don’t have planners or letter grades, they keep their schoolwork at their classroom desk and homework does not necessarily reflect schoolwork.  Because the PTA buys school supplies, I have little control over that too.  It’s as if the system is designed to decrease direct parental involvement in critical issues.  I have no clue what my child is being told in social studies, and (Common Core!) if I come to talk to the teacher, she will attempt to explain “multiple methods” (and will make a mistake in the process).  Teachers are big on trying to figure out Common Core math with parents.  Keeps our brains occupied, I suppose.

I am constantly playing catch up, trying to figure out what my children are studying and how to help them.  I want textbooks, notebooks that come home, planners and grades.  This is school?

I want a concrete set of assignments and expectations.  I understand why people homeschool, but I went to a traditional German-style institution and, I’d like to think, it worked out pretty well for me.  My schooling was filled with anxieties and propaganda; even now I have rather mixed feelings about it.  But it gave me a structure within which to become an independent thinker.

My kids, on the other hand, like their school very much.  They are upset when they have to miss a day.  They don’t feign illness.  But while my generation socialized, loosely supervised, in the afternoon, my kids go to school for social life, and I drill academics into their heads when they return.  Strange world.


September 22, 2015

You Keep Using That Word

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:56 am

At the first open house of the school year, I had the misfortune to listen to my kid’s teachers talk about the much-maligned multiple methods in math.  The topic is controversial with American parents, but judging by what I’ve see so far (my oldest is a third grader) I find multiple methods old school.  When I was growing up it was known simply as math, and now half of my class is in the US on H1B visas.  The problem with implementation of this teaching strategy is not with the approach itself but with the teachers, and, I suspect, Department Of Education bureaucrats, who have only faintest grasp of the idea and cannot adequately explain it to parents what it is.

“There is more than one way!” gushed our third grade teacher.  “Students can memorize that 9+3=12 or they can draw the number line which will help them visualize it.”  Then she dropped the name of some DOE honcho who appeared in some video explaining how there is more then one way in math, and, similarly, there is more than one way in humanities.  I’m paraphrasing the teacher here, and no, I didn’t catch the name of that DOE character and I didn’t see the video.

Our teacher was excited about the plan to have the class write an essay arguing whether or not it’s OK to wear two different socks.  Sure, it’s OK to wear two different socks and such behavior is not a crime, and kids will have fun developing wacky arguments both pro and con.  Yet one can write a well-argued essay proposing to eat Irish babies, which, of course, doesn’t mean that we can take such a proposal seriously. There will be wrong answers in humanities, especially once we get out of the realm of tastes.  I hope the teacher doesn’t believe that “more than one way” means “anything goes”, but she didn’t make the distinction.

Because every mother is entitled to a fashionably mismatched child

Her metaphor for math was off, too.  Yes, multiple methods enables students to experience math in different ways.  But it doesn’t mean that, as she says, there is more than one way, as much as it means, as my math teachers used to say, that all roads lead to Rome.  My math teachers weren’t touchy-feely Californians.  One was a hard-nosed blue-stocking and another rode his T-34 all the way yo Berlin.  But they, my math teachers, were romantic about their discipline.

Yes, 9+3 is 10+2, but 10+2 is no more no less than a convenient shortcut or a way to check oneself.  At the end it’s about 9+3.  There is a beauty in math, I was taught, in learning that all methods will produce the same result, that everything checks out.  This is quite different from developing an argument about a favorite book where well-argued answers will wary.  Hosiery decadence is a different matter entirely.

All roads might lead to Rome, but, although the Romans built very good infrastructure, not all roads are created equal.  As students learn more math they will find that there ways to prove a theorem that will do, and then there are elegant solutions.  Again, beauty (and joy) in math.  For now knowing that we don’t write checks in X’s and 0’s is sufficient.  Arabic numerals are still tops.

It’s only natural that after decades of centrally-imposed failed experiments in math education American parents are suspicious of the currently promoted multiple methods.  It doesn’t help when teachers mention multiple methods in one breath with new math without reassuring the parents that the two are not the same.  That’s what ours did, anyways.  And then she invited us to come talk to her if we have any questions.  If she has questions — as she should — she is welcome to make an appointment with me.

September 4, 2015

Alphabet Bottom Diggers

Filed under: education, politics — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:37 pm

I, for one, survived what was then known as a “co-ed” bathroom.  Those were the only ones available at Unit 2 Davidson Hall, an ugly, mid-century dorm where I found myself living when I started Berkeley two decades ago.  So gender-neutral bathrooms are not a new concept, you know.

Things were different then, however.  Nobody on my floor was “transgender” (albeit, thinking back we had one closeted homosexual — no really) and nobody insisted on being referred to in funny pronouns.  That was Berkeley in the 90’s and this is a school in the South today:

Gender-neutral pronouns

We are familiar with the singular pronouns she, her, hers and he, him, his, but those are not the only singular pronouns. In fact, there are dozens of gender-neutral pronouns.

A few of the most common singular gender-neutral pronouns are they, them, their (used as singular), ze, hir, hirs, and xe, xem, xyr.

These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new. The she and hepronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up. (Via Victory Girls)

It’s not that “the pronouns” are funny as much as they are off-putting, and if they are off-putting it’s not not so much because they are new, but because they are funny.  University of Tennessee students found them bizarre.  And yet, their professors are obligated to go around checking if any student always felt like a “xem” or, maybe, today it’s a bit of a “zir”.  Hmm…  Is the latter a Martian for sir?

I can sympathize with alphabet bottom ugliness.  I never had to deal with x’s and y’s, but like many other “Russians” living in English-speaking countries, I’ve been a victim of excessive y’s all my adult life.  In lieu of Cyrillic я Eastern European transliterators insisted on a ya letter combo, turning common female names into cumbersome Tanya, Anya and Zhenya instead of Tania, Ania and Jennie which flow noticeably better in English.  And since many of our female last names end with an , quite a few of us gals ended up aya contraptions, courtesy of Soviet/post-Soviet bureaucracy.  Typically, by the time we noticed that our names were spelled all wrong (and native-born Americans were no help, unfortunately) we were already established and it was too late to change.

Ukrainians in particular are the masters of the inelegant.  In the 90’s they insisted spelling Kiev as Kyyiv, which, in their opinion, best reflects the current Ukrainian pronunciation of the medieval capital.  They dropped one of the y’s, thankfully, and Infoukes swears it’s Kiev anyway.  It’s not up to Ukrainians to tell us how to speak English, and even if it was, they should find a more appealing way to promote their country abroad than to make up unreadable words that, in their opinion, are more authentic to the sounds of their language.

Similarly, words chalk-full of z’s and x’s is a dubious way to promote hormonal infusions.  If anything, insistence on applying funny names to themselves suggests that gender dysphoria might be secondary to some deeper dysfunction, and that a treatment for that dysfunction should replace “gender reassignment”.

In any event, the English language already has an English gender-neutral pronoun — he.  “He” can refer to both a man and a generic individual.  It’s a little outdated now, true, but it worked so well for centuries, we should see about brining it back.

And now, from the very top of the alphabet, Adam Ant singing about something at the bottom:

September 9, 2014

Things I Learned This Summer

1. The reassuring wisdom of Darling Husband is immense. Darling Daughter won a coloring contest this summer. She’s not without an artistic streak, but in the case of this particular project, she dialed it in. When we turned in her work, we thought she would learn a lesson when she finds out that she blew it because she didn’t do her best. Imagine our surprise when DH received a message that she got first place in her age category. Oh no, is she going to rest on her laurels now?
We congratulated her, but then told her that she needs to consider that not enough kids entered the contest, and that she needs to try harder next time if she wants to keep winning. I guess I have my issues. After a few days DH told me to chill: She learned an important life lesson, that, as Woody Allen said, 90% of success is showing up.
“Although,” DH quickly added, “Woody Allen tried to take his words back and made an entire documentary to repudiate it. Not to repudiate that he slept with his daughter or anything like that, but to repudiate that he believes that 90% of success is showing up.”
2. To further quote my husband, if open concept homes are such a good idea, how come nobody thought of it before? These days flippers try to demolish every wall in the house, save bedroom walls. Open concept houses look nice and zen, and they sell like hot cakes because buyers find it easy to imagine themselves living in spacious, light-filled homes.
The reality of living in them is different, and once moved in, owners begin carving out rooms of their own, mancaves, and other areas to escape family members. Also, open concept homes are not good when it comes to containing mess.
3. Who is Joel Gott?
4. Local governments can be pretty darn ridiculous. We decided to remove an old chimney on our roof, and the contractor told us that because it’s visible from the street, he’s not comfortable working without a permit. So I went to the City Hall and payed a hefty fee. The clerk told me about the paperwork I’m required to submit.
“Do you know Photoshop?” She inquired. She asked me to take pictures of the roof from various vantage points and submit them for review together with the pictures where the chimney is photoshopped out.
After I turned in my paperwork, they sent letters to our neighbors asking if they don’t mind if we remove the chimney. Next they told me to post the permit application in front of our house and mail them the picture of the posted permit.
Finally, the City Hall also wants to know if I plan to close the gaping hole in my roof and how.
5. Who is Joel Gott?
6. нет пророка в своем отечестве. I’m Putin’s troll. Or so say some of my compatriots when I point out certain… Problems with their understanding of the place where I happen to be born and raised. The place happened to be eastern Ukraine.
Everything Ukraine is pretty much inside baseball. What I hear again and again that there once was a country called Ukraine that Russia took over, starved a whole bunch of Ukrainians and brought Russians in their place, and that’s how Russians ended up in Ukraine. It’s true about Holodomor.
I do believe that we should had dispatched Kissinger to negotiate unified unaligned Ukraine and to assure Russia’s assistance in the Middle East. To risk a nuclear war (or even an economic downturn) over strongly Russian-leaning regions in a country with intractable corruption and social problem and no unifying national identity does seem a bit excessive to this blogger — and that’s why I’m Putin’s troll.
DH, again, quips that he’s still waiting for his paycheck from ZOG, and now where is his paycheck from FSB?
7. We have a new neighborhood school now. It the old one was Tijuana meets Hanoi, the new one is Portlandia. I have to say I prefer the latter because something like education does take place in it.
8. My children got in trouble this summer for simulating a gun with their hands and saying “Poof!” Daddy explained that when he was young, he had a holster with two guns in it and he played World War Two with his brother. Ah, the good old days!
9. Encouraging an ostensibly independent 7-year-old to walk down the block on her own can be a challenge these days. At first DD like the idea, but after some consideration she said “who’s going to watch me?” I told her that when I was her age and I wanted to play, I didn’t pester (ok, I used different language) my mom about my availability (her language) for play dates, I just went outside.
Next thing I know, she rolled on her scooter out of the park. That’s more like it.
…we are not fully moved in and unpacked. My desktop is not configured yet, and I hate typing on my mini, so I can’t say I’m back to blogging.

March 13, 2014

Why I Can’t See Myself Homeschooling, Even Though I Kind of Am

Filed under: education, parenting — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 6:15 pm

A few weeks ago, I attempted to show my 6-year-old how to sew.  When I was her age, I knew how fabric was made and had the basics of needlework down.  I tried to show my daughter how make certain stitches and planned on helping her to sew a small toy.  I don’t know why I was under the impression that she would listen to instructions.  She immediately decided that she wanted to make a more sophisticated toy, and that she could do it all on her own.

First, I panicked, because OMG she’s setting herself up for failure. Then I figured that maybe she needs to fail and learn from it.  Only she didn’t really fail.  First, she asked me to thread her needle, a process in which she had no interest.  I showed her that she needs a knot at the end of her thread, which she watched me tie.  Then she proceeded to making a toy out of a sock, occasionally asking me for assistance with some technical details.  I finished off some of the elements (like tying the knots on the other end of the thread) when she was done and wasn’t even looking.  Her “pet” turned out touchingly crude, and she was very disappointed in some of her failures in the process, but at the end she succeeded.  All on her own.  I’m very proud of her, but she took on an open-ended project.  I can’t teach math or spelling in this manner.

But I am teaching her math and spelling.  When I went to school, I did homework on my own and was graded for each assignment.  Now I find that all parents supervise homework, and that homework is not graded because that would amount to grading parents. I frequently find myself explaining rather than reviewing.  I find that basic penmanship was never consistently taught, and for that reason I have to break the bad habits she’s already developed.  Why did I ever assume that a public school teaches students?  In the best schools in our area, students are red-shirted and start kindergarten already knowing how to read.  They don’t learn in school, they learn for school, often in private tutoring that starts at kindergarten or earlier.

/End rant

September 21, 2013

Endangered Primordials

Filed under: education, environmentalism, politics — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 6:05 pm

From time to time I have an urge to go all Soviet on my kids.  Though my mom might disagree, I think I was far more disciplined when I was their age.  For instance, they waste loads of computer paper.  They take a whole bunch for drawing, don’t use most of it, and don’t bother to return what’s left.  They are too proud to draw on the back of an already used paper, and while I think I already lost that battle, I hate picking up slightly bent and somewhat soiled unused sheets that also don’t pass muster for them.  It all seems like a huge waste to me.  I don’t recall myself wasting so much paper, which, I think, was because it was related to me early on that we are not going to spend extra on it.  But everything is plentiful in this country.

It rained today in the Bay Area, a September rain is pretty much unheard of.  I am going to assume that it must be the new pattern of global cooling, because if my liberal neighbors get to attribute everything to global warming, now it’s my turn.  Like liberals I’m going to guilt trip the little ones into proper environmentalist behavior.  I’m going to tell my kids that if they waste any more paper, the dinosaurs will die off.

September 7, 2013

Shame and Loathing in Kharkov

Filed under: education, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 3:30 pm

This Monday was Labor Day in the US, but our number one geo-political enemy celebrated the Day of Knowledge.  Before the Soviet Union croaked and it became necessary to spruce up the old Soviet holidays, the occasion wasn’t known as the Day of Knowledge.  It was simply September 1, the first day of the new school year, celebrated on the first weekday of September.  It was, and it still is, a huge deal for the entire country.  The high point of the day is the quaintly sexist assembly during which the tallest and the strongest Senior boy carries the cutest littlest first grade girl on his shoulder in front of fellow schoolmates, parents and teachers lined up around the perimeter of the school yard, and the girl, outfitted in holiday uniform and giant white bows, rings a bell.

Somewhere in Russia in 2011. Imagine perfect childhood

There is much to say about this holiday, which, on balance, was not bad, and I’ll post about it one day.  What got me reminiscing is an Instapundit link to an essay on culture shock by a student from India.  This is how he chose to start:

  • Nobody talks about grades here.
  • Everyone is highly private about their accomplishments and failures. Someone’s performance in any field is their performance alone. This is different compared to India where people flaunt their riches and share their accomplishments with everybody else.
Of all things American he singled out that, and oh, how I understand him.  When I was growing up in Kharkov, Soviet Union, we had no notion of grade privacy.  It’s not just that inquiring about a classmate’s grades wasn’t bad form, we didn’t’ need to.  Our grades were announced in front of the whole class or posted next to our names in a hallway.  Students who did well were often praised in front of the collective, while those at the bottom were shamed.
All teachers, including the nice ones, discussed our grades — such was the custom; most shamed students, and some did so with gusto.  I recall my 8th grade Russian lit teacher taking entire class hour to belittle a student for using words and expressions she didn’t understand.  The girl survived the humiliation, and, being a happily average girl, kept pulling average grades through high school.  The teacher, I’m pretty sure, was KGB because a) somebody in our school had to be KGB and b) her husband was a general, and they spent several years in Cuba.
(Not all abuse in my school was strictly emotional.  Most of the spanking went to troubled kids, about which I didn’t feel particularly bad then, and don’t feel particularly bad now, even though I realize in a long term this kind of discipline was probably useless.  But once my elementary school teacher hit a quiet, lonely girl for not following directions.  That episode remained ingrained in my mind because I didn’t understand why the teacher hurt her.  In retrospect I realize that the girl was autistic, and the teacher, who had 37 of us in her classroom, lost her temper.)
Before the onset of puberty, shaming discouraged failure in certain cases and prompted many middle of the road students to improve their grades.  What kid wants to be called a “fool” and a “cretin” in front of his friends?  Even those of us who were pretty sure we wouldn’t be singled out, set trembling as our elementary school teacher, a stunningly attractive woman with hourglass body, announced test marks.  Now she’s going through the bundle of 5’s (out of 5, that is), and now 4’s, and then 3’s.  We’d rather hear a 4 than a 3.
An unintended effect of shaming was discouragement of achievement.  Once we grew up a bit and got more introspective, we started talking of rather having a 2, the failing grade, than a 3.  A 2 looks like we didn’t care, but 3 made it seem like we tried, but didn’t get very far.
And think of it from the perspective of the student who regularly flunks a tests: he, a 7-year-old son of an alcoholic mother and no known dad, already resigned himself to be the whipping post of the teacher whom he hates, fears and admires at the same time.  But as soon as she’s done with him, some smarty pants kid, the one who gets a yummy sandwich out of his briefcase every afternoon at lunchtime, gets praise.  What, he thinks he’s better than everyone else?  Guess what, the delinquent also needs an outlet.
I, for one, allied myself with not too bright girls who were on good terms with the hooligans, and allowed them to copy my tests just so that they could put in a good word for me.  I also made sure to get a few 4’s each quarter.
In grade school, we were already well on our way of embracing mediocrity, disliking being both on top and on the bottom.  It’s not just that the Soviet economic system disincentivized achievement, and political system punished it, the entire culture was driven by envy and at odds with anything or anybody who dares to be extraordinary.
Add to it the ethnic dimension.  Not all Jews were nerds and there was no shortage of uber-brainy Russians or Ukrainians, but often, and stereotypically, the kid with exemplary grades had dark curls and sad eyes and his tormenters were Slavs.  And even if an otlichnik (a straight A student) was not himself a yid, at least not to his knowledge, it was no guarantee that racial epithets won’t fly when the hooligans give him what was coming.  Any questions about  the Soviet brain drain?
There is much not to like about American schools, particularly the insidious self-respect movement that treats students as fragile little things who need to be showered with praise.  Well, at least I can reasonably expect that teachers will respect my children’s humanity.
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