Monday, January 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Math Teachers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and

anyone paying attention to educational trends knows that politicians of every stripe wish we had more math and science teachers who can actually teach those subjects, just as they wished when the Cold War factored in everyone's life, rather than occupying space in history texts. Evgeny Zamyatin said that history is a helix. It made sense when I read it thirty years ago, and it makes more sense now that I've seen more events cycle back around to remarkable familiarity.

Like everyone else, I've been through it, which makes me an expert. Couple that with the fact that I live at least 75 miles from all but the barest handful of those who read this, and I merit quotable status. And just for the record, I do realize I'm talking about more than two math teachers in what follows. The title just felt better this way to this English teacher (ret.).

I had a miserable excuse for a math teacher as an eighth grader. I remember only three things from that class: he leaned against the doorway as he talked to the class, casually swinging his right leg and kicking Charlie, the kid cursed by the alphabet with the first seat inside the door. He threw chalk at anyone he deemed inattentive. He once assigned 60 problems as punitive homework (which we bribed the resident genius to do, and to let the rest of us copy). And I remember that that was the only year he taught there. He was shuffled on in the network of small school districts in southern Minnesota, and (I hope) eventually on to employment of another sort.

Then came Mr. F (that's not a grade, just the first letter of his last name), my high school Algebra I and Geometry teacher. And no, it wasn't all one course; I had him for two years in that small high school. When it came down to it, he had all the freshmen for Algebra I and all the sophomores for geometry. He was friendly, almost jovial.

And Mr. F knew more about the Civil War than anyone I've known before or since. I've read several of Bruce Catton's books, and my brother-in-law is a Civil War buff and history teacher, but Mr. F would have wiped our combined backsides without reaching for any paper.

Mr. F also knew exactly how many theorum memorizations ahead or behind last year's lesson plans this year's class was. Or where we were in relation to the class a decade ahead of us. But he ended up teaching us more about General Lee's horse than he did about congruent triangles. I acquired my understanding of Pythagoras, and how handy that darned theorum could be, somewhat later.

Mr. F was followed by Mr. K, who taught Algebra II and what's more commonly seen now as Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus, though it was called something more like Senior Math on our schedules back in that day. King K, we called him, and he was indeed imperious. If you had no vision of college, you avoided King K at any cost. If you had a glimpse of college on the horizon, you took a deep, summer-long breath, and entered his realm for two years.

Mr. K had worked outside of education: in wartime shipyards as a pipefitter, in a factory as an operating engineer. He was an inventor, with a patent or six to his name. He had somewhere along the line acquired a teaching degree in math and in physics, and he had devoted his life to passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm for the utility of advanced mathematics and of physics. Years after I graduated from college, I was still calculating square roots in my head for the mental exercise.

I won't belabor the going-to-school-in-Belgium thing that inspired my previous posts; I will say that I was not particularly challenged in my math classes there (but then my chosen curriculum wasn't math-heavy, either).

Of course, college algebra followed soon after graduation, but by that time I was bored with algebra. My mind doesn't handle the repetitive well, so my work in that course was careless. I coasted to a grade that didn't jolt my GPA too badly.

When my future wife decided to go back to college and major in elementary education, it wasn't the college math professor who got to see the light in her eyes when she finally understood the concept of numbers in bases other than 10. I had that privilege, thanks to the foundation that had been laid years before by the King.

Much of what I've said makes the King look like an excellent math and science teacher. I don't think that's the case at all, though those of us going on to become doctors and lawyers and pharmacists and teachers and engineers received an appreciated background. But what of those who went on to become the very same pipefitters and operating engineers that he had been? His inaccessible nature (to all but the math- or college-inclined) made the math and physics they would need and use on a daily basis inaccessible to them. They should have been able to get them in high school, but they couldn't because of the aura that surrounded the King. They took bookkeeping* instead (not that that didn't serve them well).

My dog posted some time ago, before he decided to post nothing more than an occassional joke, that a good teacher is identifiable by the fact that students are engaged with the material. I agree with him, but would expand that definition to emphasize that ALL students are engaged by a truly excellent teacher, not just those willing to put aside trepidation.

So we have a dilemma. Half-century-old concerns revisit us wearing slightly different clothes, and our nation's leaders (both in education and in politics) beat their breasts and call for more math and science teachers. Do we seek them via recruitment from industry and alternative licensure? I don't think the private sector or licensure are THE answer, though they may well prove to be part of the bandaid we put on the problem. We really need to revisit the term "highly qualified" and figure out what we mean by that. I'd have much prefered to have excellent teachers than highly qualified ones.

*I know that a more current term would be accounting, but "accounting" doesn't have three double letters in a row.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

For your enjoyment

The Education Wonks have Week 51 of the Education Carnival up and running.

As an English teacher, I especially enjoyed Chris Lehmann's post on making the English classroom relevant. It would have been far more comfortable (to say nothing of more fun) closing out my career with that sort of leadership.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Too Little Exercise?

Saturday, Alexander Russo at This Week in Education posted a comment on a story about kids hitting the gym after school that he had seen in the NY Times. It piqued my curiousity, so I read it, too.

The first couple paragraphs surprised me:

AT 13, Jena Jerve has managed to stretch her days to do it all: keep a 4.0 grade-point average, play center on her school's basketball team and nourish her love for dancing with six hours a week of tap, ballet and jazz.

But over the last year and a half Jena has also been cramming a less typical extra-curricular activity into her busy schedule, the health club. There, for about an hour twice a week, she has discovered the rigors of weight training and the joy of building stamina on a stationary bike and fitting into jeans. "I've lost inches around my stomach and waist and legs," said Jenna, who is 5-foot-9 and weighs about 175 pounds. "I have a lot of energy now."

She's dancing six hours a week, practicing hoops AT LEAST another hour a day (and most days probably well over that), and still feels uncomfortable in her body. So she adds a couple hours at the gym (err, "health club").

And it brought to mind last Monday's post by Donna in which her uncle reminds her of all the "unhealthy" practices that kids used to survive. He closes by wondering how we all managed to still be here. It's almost the stereotypical "in-my-day" piece, but he doesn't add the lines about drinking out of the garden hose and walking to school in the snow.

The NY Times article does a good job of balancing nostalgia with reality: how "we" grew up as opposed to how "kids" grow up today. The comments the author received from parents reflect a a past that feels very much like mine.

The simple fact is that we can no longer rely on daily life to provide our children with the exercise that we got chasing through unfenced neighborhood backyards after basketball practice. Conscientious parents carefully wash cutting boards so kids won't get chicken juice on their vetgetables; good for them - they know more than our parents did. Dishwashers boil the living bejesus out of everything a human hand has touched. We live in single-story cookie-cutter houses in gated communities instead of five-story walk-ups down the block from the deli. Those are facts, and we ought not let misty memories distort them. Even if we do wish that thirteen-year-olds didn't have to rely on the gym.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

I knew I wasn't alone

I knew I couldn't possibly be the only soul to have attended a Belgian school. My post received a comment from "David," who attended one as well. What he says rings true, especially since we attended schools in the same city. Since he adds information, his complete comment follows; I'll butt in where our experience differs or where it leads to different conclusions. Or just when it triggers a fond memory.

David said...

I also spent a year in the Belgian school system: I was in (the equivalent of) 7th grade in 1970-1971. So many of your comments ring true. But some things have changed...

We had the same schedule as you, but we only had Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off: Tuesdays were a full day. The teachers must have negotiated an extra half-day since I left!

Actually, we were nearly contemporaries. I was there in '71-'72. I'm guessing my reference to the '96 teachers' strike is what gave the impression that my experience was more recent. That was a result of my doing some search-engine-fueled catching up, as well as my deliberately leaving the timeline vague. The post is dated Sunday, which is when I started it, but I didn't actually post it until Tuesday. I spent the time between making sure that significant details hadn't changed. They hadn't.

As far as the Tuesday afternoon thing, I'm stuck in a place where my memory says one thing, but my "Journal de classe" says another. I certainly don't remember having Tuesday afternoons off, and I'm not finding any evidence that that is current practice either, but without documentation in front of me, I wasn't about to insist that my memory was accurate. The fact of the matter is that I remember classes (dactylo (typing), for example) that don't show on the course schedule I have in front of me from that long-ago year. I remember there was some bureaucratic shuffling and juggling as the school administration sorted out what exactly to do with an American high-school graduate attending a Belgian high school as an exchange student. I guessed, as I wrote the piece, that I was a couple hours off on the total/week, and David's comment confirms that. Thank you!

I'm curious as to the curriculum you were in: I was in (what was then called) "Sixieme Latine" ("Sixth Latin"), which--under the then system--was the first year of secondary school (they counted down from six to one). My classes varied from one period a week (gym and swimming) up to NINE periods a week (latin), with most courses (French, Dutch, math) being four or five periods a week.

I'm jealous of your being there that young, David, though I can't say that I regret having gone when I did (I don't know how well I'd have tolerated nine hours of Latin). I had a (host-family) cousin in Sixieme Latine as well. The kids in Latin-Greque really got a dose of the classical.

As an exchange student, I was a senior, and without the classical-language background my options were somewhat limited. Add to that the fact that every effort was made to accomodate my own peculiar interests and goals, and I was in Premiere Sciences Humaines - human sciences (whatever the hell that is). Is everyone getting the picture here that Belgian students actually declare "majors" as soon as they get out of primary school? That's basically what happens.

As to "modern" languages: that's just to distinguish them from "ancient" languages (Latin and Greek). In those days, the most "scholarly" curriculum was "Latin-Greek" (emphasis on the classics), followed by "Latin-Math" and "Latin-Sciences". Next down in the hierarchy (bear in mind, this is a sociological hierarchy, not an economic one!) were the "Modern" sections, which didn't teach Latin or Greek. Finally, there were the "Technical" sections, which--as was indicated above--were more vocational training and didn't necessarily go all six years.

Your point about "modern" vs. "ancient" is well taken. You're entirely correct, and I realize that. I just find it interesting that Belgians call the language spoken by their neighbors "modern" whereas we insist on calling it "foreign." That just seems like an unnecessary barrier to me. We speak of "native" languages and "foreign" languages; they speak of "first" and "second" and "third" languages.

My younger host-brother was Latin-Sciences; he's now a dentist in Liege. My older host-brother was Latin-Math, and I remember his spending hours trying to work out the curves in a drawing of a spiral staircase. I learned then and there that India ink is so difficult to erase that it's easier to start over.

But again, one can only conclude that Belgian students and families make decisions about their children's futures on the basis of what a twelve-year-old is good at.

As far as competition goes: there were parents who were willing to go to great lengths to send their kids to what they considered good schools. I went to a Catholic school in Liege, the College St.-Louis, which had a rep as being academically outstanding (in those days the Catholic system was considered far superior to the secular state system of "Athenees" [Athenaeums]), and several of my classmates came from small towns deep in the Ardennes: they had a two-hour or longer commute, by public transportation, every day, in each direction.

I remember the College St.-Louis (Rue Grétry 55 (I cheated. I didn't remember exactly where it was in that neighborhood, so I looked it up)). One of the distractions of being an exchange student was going to speak at schools in the area. About six weeks before I truly acclimatised to the language, I spoke to an auditorium of kids there, ostensibly about what it meant to be American - what it was like to live here, etc. I could have handled "rural Minnesota." "America" was a bit more than I was comfortable chewing. Still is. The students seemed more interested in Angela Davis and the Viet Nam war than they did in corn and soybeans. I couldn't blame them at the time. I had to ask how one said "contientious objector" in French, so I could explain that little angle of "life in the States"(Belgian youth were obligated to military service for a year after they finished school, unless they were "objecteurs de consciences").

And yeah (big YEAH) to the commuting-to-school-from-out-of-town thing. I lived right on the Meuse (the river that runs through Liege, for those of you who don't have David and my common understanding of geography) and was able to walk just about anywhere in the city in 45 minutes or less, so I walked to school. Most of my dozen classmates weren't much worse off (one lived just around the corner from the school. over the hobby shop his family ran. I bought a model car there once, just to take a break from being Belgian), but we had a classmate who came in from the Ardennes as well. Ludo (short for Ludovico) was (obviously) of Italian descent and dominated discussions in philosophy class, but was otherwise rather quiet.

I want to gloat a little bit, and say that at least I can find a website for L'Athenee Royal de Liege, which I attended. All I find for the College St.-Louis is tourism sites that refer to its swimming pool. But the site for the Athenee is dismal, and the school would probably be better served without it, so gloating would be totally inappropriate. I'm not even going to link to the site, it's that bad. And the swimming pool is in the basement, just as it was when I was there.

But much of the competition was also in other, non-academic aspects: I knew a couple who lived outside of Liege, and they had the choice of two nearby schools, one larger and more academically challenging, and the other smaller and perhaps less rigorous. They sent one boy to one and the other to the other. Try that here in the states!

I guess this is where my public-school bias gets to blossom: how is choosing between "academically challenging" and "less rigorous" not a desicion based on academics? I recognize the argument that it doesn't have to be in the same school, or lead to the same diploma. What I don't understand is the insistence that it be in separate facilities. I've just had too many special education students in my classes to believe that "separate-but-equal" is appropriate.

One aspect which may or may not have been covered elsewhere: there was no distinction between secular schools and religiously-affiliated ones. They all got state subsidies, and--as previously mentioned--the (Catholic) Colleges were generally considered superior to the (secular) Athenees. I believe that Protestant, Jewish and Muslim schools were also allowed subsidies, though--having never actually encountered one while I was there--I can't swear to it.

Given that Belgium is 95% Catholic, it's hardly amazing that the possible wouldn't exist. I suspect that it's "possible" in several places in this country to establish a Hmong charter school, but does anyone know of one? And if a school's sole funding is derived from a per-physically-present-pupil-on-September 10 formula, is that a "subsidy?" Given that public school funding is solely determined by counting students, I don't think so. A "subsidy" is something that's optional - like paying farmers to keep their fields weed- and crop-free, in order to support prices (or a guaranteed per/bale price for cotton or tobacco, regardless of the market). They can plant (or raise the crop regardless), or they can take the payment. It's a choice. Show me the "choice" for public schools, and I'll acknowledge the use of the term "subsidy."

Having not seen the Stossel report, I can't intelligently comment on it. But if we were to go to a system of state funding for education that didn't distinguish between "public" and "religious" schools; that allowed parents to decide where their kids should go, rather than having the decision made by arbitrary geographical boundaries (and even more arbitrary busing...); and where the dollars followed the student--IOW, a fully-funded voucher system, with open enrollment--I can't see how that wouldn't be an improvement over what we have now.

As some have observed, we've had school choice in this country for years: just not for the poor.

I'm not about to suggest that the public-school system as we see it today is perfect. Nor am I about to suggest that we couldn't learn valuable lessons from the Belgians. What I do suggest is that, as I implied the other day, we shouldn't accept a comparison to the Belgians without understanding what we're comparing ourselves to.

David, thank you. I haven't even gotten to many of the dances down memory lane that you triggered with your response (do you remember La Gallerie, the tunnelesque street of shops with houses over the top of the street?).

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ignore the man behind the dog

Actually, that pic is just parked there for a minute so I can move it to my Mac (the laptop to my right in the pic), where I have Photoshop. I made the mistake of uploading it to the hard drive on my PC, and I really need to reduce its size a bit and crop some of the periphery so I can use it up in the corner the way Amerloc uses the one of himself behind the wheel of his pickup.

I talked at some length in my last post about the educational system in Belgium, yet managed to leave out probably as much as I told. I'm not going to try to fill all the gaps tonight, but I do have a story from that year that I'd like to share, by way of exemplifying how thoroughly immersive the experience was:

One rainy late-January/early February afternoon, a good friend and I went to the local indoor ice-rink and skated for a couple of hours. When we left the rink to walk home, night had fallen and the rain had quickened. We followed the road along the river through the city, one moment cursing the rain and the next marveling at the way it sparkled in the streetlights and danced in the street. After a couple of blocks, a sedan pulled to the curb alongside us, windshield wipers slapping frantically, and the driver got out, some urgency plain in his eyes: the look of a man trying to find an address in a strange city on a night of poor visibility.

He spoke, and neither of us understood a word he said, but both recognized it as probably German. She asked if he spoke French. He said, "No."

Having studied Dutch for all of a semester and knowing Dutch to be related to German, I asked if he spoke Dutch, and was tremendously relieved when he answered in the negative. I could, perhaps, have recited the dialogue about finding the post office, but really couldn't have helped him much beyond that.

Taking the initiative away from a couple of soggy teenagers, he asked if either of us spoke English. I gave my friend a look that today would be accompanied by an eye-roll and a resounding, "Duh!," then turned to him and said, "Yes, I speak English."

So he asked me the questions in what was possibly his third language, I translated them to her in my second language (though I was at that point certainly mentally wired to French as my first), she gave me the answers, and I relayed them to him in my nominal first language.

I intended to stop there, but I see in the story a couple of things that bear emphasis.

First, no one has created a language acquisition system that out-performs immersion. I wasn't an American speaking French; I was a French-speaking American.

Second, I've used the terminology that I came to associate with academic language study in Europe. No one spoke of "native" languages or "foreign" languages. Everyone had a first and a second language in which they could operate with relative ease (most of a decade of instruction will do that, especially with real-life opportunities to practice only a few kilometers away). And everyone had another language or two in which they could survive when necessary - when they couldn't find their way in a strange city on a dark, rainy night.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Re: Stossel and Belgian Education

I watched John Stossel's 20/20 piece called "Stupid in America" this afternoon, and what strikes me (other than his strident call for competition) is his at-best-disengenuous, at-worst-ignorant lack of a look at differences between the Belgian system of education and our own here in the States. He insists that Belgian schools compete in the open market, and that such a system would solve all that ails ours as well.

I'm fortunate to have been able to attend school in Belgium for a year: long enough to not only develop significant fluency in another language, but to also develop an appreciation for the culture, the education system it drives, and some of the differences between "over there" and "over here." I don't honestly believe we, as a nation, are prepared to embrace all of those differences, even in the spirit of fostering competition. Here's why:

First, envision a national teacher union, a national teacher contract, and a national right to strike. Think you can talk states like Texas and Nevada out of banning the right to strike to a NATIONAL teacher's union? Collaterally, of course, teacher salaries are established according to that national contract. Stossel berated "a union-government" monopoly on public education, but glossed over this "little" detail in the Belgian not-so-fine print: all those "competetive" schools pay their teachers according to the national contract, not according to local desires or needs.

Now, imagine trying to pass a national law that will impact all teachers without actually getting teacher input. Can you see all the schools in the entire nation shut down because the teachers wouldn't tolerate that? We're not talking a local teachers' strike. We're talking every single school in the "teachers-be-damned" nation shut down. The Belgian teachers did it most recently in 1996, from the end of February through the end of the school year.

Second, understand that Belgian schools do not provide transportation. You can choose a school 20 miles from home, but even if you live within three miles, there will be no yellow bus ferrying your kids at the public's expense. A very dependable system of public transportation will, however, provide regular-traveler discounts. If turning your child over to public transportation isn't something you feel comfortable with, you're on your own. Consequently, at least until "secondary" school, parents tend to keep their kids at the school closest to home.

I beg your indulgence as I get to number three: the Belgian school week was something of a shock to this American. I was used to seven classes (including study-hall), five days a week. Start at about 8 A.M., finish around 3:30 P.M. I had the same seven-class schedule every day, week in and week out.

Imagine my first Monday: Start at 8 A.M., go to four classes, leave at noon to go home for the noon meal. Get back at 2:00 P.M. for three more classes, and finish up at 5 P.M. to return home for the day. The school did NOT provide any meals whatsoever - we had two hours to get home, enjoy the biggest meal of the day with our family, and get back for the rest of the school day.

Tuesday was an equal shock: Start at 8 A.M. again, but five classes straight through to 1 P.M. and we were done for the day.

Wednesday echoed Tuesday: 8-1 and out.

Thursday and Friday had the same hours as Monday. Saturday was the same as Tuesday and Wednesday. Pick your jaw back up off the floor and adjust: we had five hours of school on Saturday.

So on to number three: in those 36 hours of class time, I had no course that met more than four times, but took 16 different courses. Two were four meetings a week, one was only one time, the other 13 were either two or three hours a week. Only twice did I have the same course back-to-back (two hours straight, on paper, but with a "passing-period" between). Three were foreign-language courses (and yes, I cheated. I took English as my second foreign language). No study-hall. That's what those afternoons off were for.

Somewhere here (and this seems the appropriate spot) I should mention that they aren't called "foreign languages" in Belgium: they're "modern languages." If you consider that Belgium was politically created as a buffer zone between Holland and France, by taking part of each country centuries ago, and then adding on a small chunk of Germany after WWII, you might well understand that Belgium has three official languages, none of them "foreign": French, Dutch, and German.

Fourth, the Belgian system made no pretense that all kids were the same, that they all needed the same education just because they had access to it. Mr. Stossel in his 20/20 piece suggests by omission that all Belgian schools attempt to provide the same opportunities to their students. Nothing, quite frankly, could be less true. Belgium does a much better job than we do of acknowledging that one doesn't necessarily need a college degree to inherit and run the family business. The courses you need for that can just as easily be taught in "high school." But if you want to be an architect, you don't need all those marketing and accounting classes either. In either case, you need some understanding of the concepts involved in the other's instance to have a truly well-rounded education, but you CAN actually specialize your secondary education so that if you have no need for university-level studies to accomplish your dream, you don't HAVE to prepare yourself for them.

And Belgian schools take that into account. Some are very, very good at preparing students to manage small businesses. Others are truly excellent at preparing students for a variety of pursuits requiring advanced degrees. Yet others do a marvelous job of preparing auto mechanics (for Peugots and Saabs and BMWs and Ferraris and for many makes we never, ever see on this side of the Atlantic). But none of them tries so hard to be everything to all people as we do with our public schools in this country.

Then we deal with the fact that a student in Belgium who begins on one track may not finish there: a test in eighth grade that determines whether the student is allowed to stay on a purely academic track or whether a "vocational track" might be more appropriate. Same kind of test at the end of tenth grade. If you reach your junior year in an "academic" school, you've demonstrated your right to be there. I wonder which sort of student group Stossel used for his comparison. I don't believe it was anywhere near as homogenous a group as the New Jersey students.

Stossel suggests that the schools in a Belgian city are in competition for students; at the secondary level that's only partially true. They each seek to develop, and perhaps expand, their niches, but none of them is after EVERY student. Before we swallow his bait clear back to the hook, we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Let's see how this goes

I had a blog a while back, and sorta ditched it when I ran out of energy for spouting off.

Several months later, my dog got himself all worked up and started his own. He's had a fair amount of fun with it. But it's sort of evolved differently than he originally thought it would. I didn't think it had to - he thought it did. One of those kinds of arguments. The author wins. Unfortunately, he's been putting pressure on me to pursue his original dream. He still thinks it's worthwhile (and I do too).

So I will. I make no promise of excessive regularity. With much of technology, I tend to get bored once I've figured out how it works. That's why I haven't finished putting the family videos on DVD . I haven't even started transfering all our old vinyl albums to CDs. That's just too much tedium for someone who has a grandson such a short drive away.

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