Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Are You Going to Eat That?

For some reading this, a piece about food may seem strange in a blog supposedly about school. For the rest of us who currently work in or attend schools, we can tell you that we spend about half of our time complaining about gym class, and the rest of it complaining about the cafeteria--even if we don't have gym class anymore.

The history of school lunches is rather fascinating, but it's also rather extensive, and therefore rather tiresome. Instead of working through all of it, I'll provide some highlights that intertwined with my own life.

My father, who by the way was born in 1939--so not nearly old enough to have lived in The Little House on the Prairie or anything like that, went home for lunch during school. It saved his school the cost of infrastructure that would be needed to feed hundreds of picky eaters every day, and most importantly saved everyone from the indignity of lunch duty. However, it was based on the assumption that most, if not all, kids would have a parent--let's face it, a mom--home to greet and feed the children, and more importantly to get them back to school for the afternoon.

My own elementary school achieved some of the same savings by requiring packed lunches every day. Except Thursday. On Thursday we had "Hot Lunch" which was probably pretty standard school lunch fare for the time--burgers, bar-b-que or meatball sandwiches, pizza, and such. All I remember, though, were the creme-filled doughnuts and the bags of sour cream and onion potato chips. Hot lunch was a lovely treat, but was probably based on a theory that some older people still hold, which is that all a meal requires to be legitimate and nutritious is that it should have heat applied to it.

In high school, things became more normal. Normal for Catholic school, anyway. It was possible to eat a "salad" made up primarily of pepperoni slices, creamy dressing, and croutons. You could also buy a Tastykake pie, an ice cream sandwich, and an IcyTea for about the same price as a school lunch. Or you could buy an official school lunch of pizza, fries, and chocolate milk which cost about the same because the government considered it Lunch, and not just lunch. It still galls kids to get to the checkout and find out that their meal will cost double because they didn't take (not eat, mind you, but take) the fruit cup in heavy syrup.

Apparently by the time I was in high school, they were trying to offer "Hot Lunch" every day at the elementary as well. I spent exactly one day on the drive-hot-lunch-from-the-high-school-kitchen-to-the-elementary-cafeteria crew. Someone had misinterpreted my lackluster grades and Slacker ways for an indication that I was the kind of person who may want to work for a living. Before day two I discovered going to the band room to play my trumpet during study halls, rather than carry steamer trays up and down the steps and in and out of the van. I don't know how the guys who stuck with this horrible task turned out, but I for one still spend my free time playing my trumpet in the band room.

One thing I do remember about our high school cafeteria, was that the frosting on the cake (real butter-cream, by the way) was no less than 1/2 the thickness of the cake itself. Also, if the little squares of pizza got dried out by the second day, they would throw a slice of cheese on top "revive" it. Grilled cheese sandwiches were so ubiquitous that they would cut up the leftovers for croutons.

This was due, it turns out, to the way we used to support farmers. In those days (and still, to a lesser degree) the government bought up excess commodities to support prices. It is still corporate welfare (since the main beneficiary is Big Ag), but keeping the country in the business of growing food, and doing so by giving nutritious natural products to poor people and schools, probably isn't the worst economic policy. To see that, keep reading (see also: T.A.R.P.).

Though subsidized cheese is still apparently on the menus in schools these days, it doesn't have a tenth the ubiquitous quality that it did in the 80s, in part due to the George Bush Thinks I'm Fat Act, as well as the subsequent Michelle Obama Does Too program. These efforts were intended to reduce the butter and cheese in the diets of school persons, based on the fact that high-fat diets were making us just a little bit obese. This may have been true, but it created a bit of a gap, and into the gap came Corn.

It begins, as so many stories in this country do, with the Iowa Caucuses. The strange rituals we use to select our president begin with the first-in-the-nation contest in Iowa, and end in the equally strange Electoral College. As a result, Iowans' interests hold out-sized power in our country. It turns out that much of what Iowans are interested in is Corn.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma you may want to walk away from the blog and read it, since the next bit is mostly plagiarized from there. I'll wait.

For me, it actually started here in a New York Times Magazine article (it actually started on Fresh Air, since much of my reading is done on the radio). The gist, if you'd rather not read the 9000 word piece, or the 90,000 word book, is that we've really screwed up cows. Cows were designed, perhaps intelligently designed if that's your thing, to extract nutrients from a sustainable, solar-powered food source that grows on almost any terrain, in poor thin soils, with minimal input from us. Meanwhile, they return nutrients to the ground, improving the soil even as they take what they need from it. We weren't satisfied with how quickly this happened, and so started to "finish" them on Corn. Long story short, you'd also get a pretty nice "finish" on you if we fed you Snicker's bars for 14 months, though it wouldn't be good for you in the long run. For beef cattle, there is no long run, so what's the big deal?

The big deal is that feed lots are bad for cows (requiring lots of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick) and ecosystems (concentrating wastes without a real method of dealing with them), and growing Corn is bad for soil (requiring lots of fertilizer, much of which we make from petroleum). We've created this situation by messing with the market just enough to sustain an unsustainable system. If Corn had to function in the actual economy, without subsidies and with the environmental costs built in, maybe it would recede to a sensible place in our food supply. Instead we look for more things to put Corn into, lest it bury us in its golden river of starch.

When we're not eating Corn in the form of beef, we're eating it in the form of chicken, often in nugget or patty form--specifically, chicken (Corn), breaded (in Corn), held together with binders like maltodextrin (Corn), and even though they're "baked" at school, they were previously fried (in Corn oil) in a factory somewhere. All of this is covered in a lovely sauce sweetened with xanthan gum (Corn) and corn syrup (need I say?).

Some of this Corn probably got to us in part by way of fuel made from Corn. When we're not eating Corn we're putting it in our gas tanks--even if it does consume more fuel to make ethanol than we get in fuel from ethanol.

Not too long after the article in 2002 I discovered an important axiom: The Limited Power of Discourse. For all of the talking we do in our society, and how intelligent and sensible (or explosive and strident) the arguments may be, very few minds are changed these days, and very little happens when they are. Michael Pollan has been making these arguments for a decade and we haven't fixed this. Really, we haven't changed much of anything in that time, as far as I can tell.

The other axiom it brings to mind is The Power of Institutional Laziness. Rather than fixing the butter and cheese problem with lower-fat fresh food made from actual ingredients, school lunch programs found another shortcut in the form of processed foods (Corn). In my school you can buy a lunch of pot pie (kind of a thick chicken noodle soup, for anyone living outside of PA Dutch country) with a roll, a bowl of potato soup, a cookie, and a strawberry milk for a federally sanctioned Lunch (by the way, they will hand you, completely without irony, Margarine (Corn) for your roll--though the saltshakers are still banned). One way you can tell there's no nutritional value in that lunch is that the only color comes from the strawberry milk. If Michael Pollan's arguments (and those of others, such as Jamie Oliver) do start to penetrate, look for some other shortcut to soon follow. Serving real food that kids (and grownups, for that matter) will actually eat is hard, which is why they'll probably find solution that doesn't actually fix any of this.

Until then, we will continue to complain about the cafeteria (and gym class). If nothing else, the effort burns some of the calories from all of that hydrolyzed vegetable protein (Corn) they're feeding us now.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cults: Why They're Bad, and How to Get in One

In Catholic school, we often had the same teacher for Social Studies one year and Religion the next. Therefore, it was either World History with Mr. Beazley, or Religion with Sister Maryann, or the other way around, but at some point my colleagues and I were faced with the definition of "cult." It may have been this, but I remember it more as:

cult (n.)
1. Begins by creating a sense of exclusivity through a complex and/or grueling initiation procedure.
2. Celebrates rites, symbols, and rituals that unite the members but seem foreign or even frightening to outsiders.
3. Imposes its own special meaning on major and minor life events, such as birth, death, eating, sex, and so on.
4. Expects members to display small trinkets, charms, stickers, tatoos, or hand-gestures employing cult symbolism to communicate wordlessly with others.
5. Centered around a special text, manifesto, or creed from which they recite or chant at gatherings.

Our question at the time was, how is this different from the Catholic Church? Is it only size that matters here?

First, a bit of disclaimer: We use the word "cult" with relative abandon these days, but there are some very upsetting real world examples. The oft-used expression "drink the Kool-Aid" refers to these guys, and the ATF is a bit tainted for people of a certain age (i.e. my age) because of this. The cults we'll be talking about here share characteristics with these other more serious manifestations, but I'm in no way suggesting that they're the same. Part of the coarsening of rhetoric in our time is due to the fact that we've turned nazi, socialist, and murderer into prefixes and suffixes of far too many normal terms like feminist, environmental, and ax.

Exclusivity is often an important ingredient in cults. This can be generated through any number of initiation procedures, which may include: a limited pool of open spots, having initiates take a test on specific knowledge of the organization, and/or swearing of an oath of allegiance (forsaking all others)--heck, just to become an American citizen you need to do all of that. In the arts, it usually also involves an audition. My wife talks about the fact that her high school band front--we called it that in the 80s, I know it's "guard" now--had tryouts. Rarely, if ever, was anyone cut, but the very process of auditions produced a sense of unit cohesion. I'm reminded of the Groucho Marks quote: "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Sometimes, though not always, initiation practices descend into hazing. Sometimes initiation processes themselves can be considered hazing. Either way, this is where the real horrors begin. Recently, the reaction to the tragic death of drum major Robert Champion was probably for many people, "What? Hazing? In BAND?"

The simple answer is, yes. Obviously, it's not usually fatal, but hazing is often a part of bands and lots of other organizations that experience success, in part, by developing unity among members. The fact that bands in some schools are more popular and powerful than the football teams they "support" means that they can be responsible for much of the same cruelty that we often associate with athletes--particularly athletes in violent sports. For an excellent and much more informed rant on this sort of thing, see Frank Deford's take on hazing here.

The worst part is when this hazing is not only ignored by the institution, but perpetuated by it. In a way, all forms of elder privilege contribute to the problem. Every time a member of an organization looks forward to a day when he no longer must _______ , or she finally can _______ , or he can make the incoming people ________, just for getting older and more senior in the group, the cycle repeats itself. Hazing may officially be the act of the members of the organization, but it always the fault of the leaders of it. Through things done or left undone, those at the very top are what keep it going.

You may not think you participate in hazing, but you do. Something like 20% or 54% of the Federal budget, depending on who you ask (see also: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics), goes to military spending. This means that you contribute to the largest, most efficient, and most official hazing organization in the world. The United States Armed Forces.

I have a special perspective on this, because I came remarkably close to becoming a Marine. The short version of the story is that I went in for the whole college-is-far-too-expensive-to-be-worth-it thing, and was convinced that I was going to play in the Commandant's Own Drum and Bugle Corps. Through the recruiting process, I learned military's theory of boot camp. The idea is that the best method of building self-esteem is to first destroy whatever you've started with, so that you are a clean slate for their own United States Armed Forces version of it. Your brain and spirit are stored on a hard drive, and step one is to reformat it.

Some version of this is at work in lots of initiation and hazing theory. The idea that you can and should break someone down so that you have a clean slate to start fresh permeates most cults, and therefore most of society. We even call it brainwashing.

Why, then, would anyone want to be in a cult? The answer may be that having people around who are officially on your side is very attractive. I know with fraternities, one of the selling points was that if you ever meet Keith Lockart, or Burl Ives, or Andrew Carnegie, or Mister Rogers wouldn't it be nice to have something in common with them? Going through some moderate discomfort is certainly worth it to have a whole network of people who will always be there to get your back.

This is certainly easier when members of your cult readily identify themselves. It's probably the reason for all of the symbols and handshakes and pins and stickers and all of it. We all know the symbols of most of the world's major religions:

And even some of the minor ones:

But, if Dan Brown has taught us anything, it's really these guys that we need to be concerned about:

or maybe:

Organizations that may be normal in most schools may be cults in yours. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it is certainly worth considering if all you're really after is a bit of exercise, or a chance to play the tuba. Look for:
  1. Inside jokes--Do they often exchange knowing looks, followed by spontaneous laughter at seemingly innocuous things?
  2. A common language--Do members seem to have their own terminology for things, and their own way of talking secretively while in the midst of others?
  3. Secrecy--Do members start sentences, and then decline to finish them? Related side-note: I took a pledge to keep secret quite a number of things for my fraternity, but I've forgotten what they were. Forgetting the secrets is fine--it actually makes them much easier to keep, however, in some cases I remember things that I'm not sure whether I must keep secret or not.
  4. Loyalty--not always a problem in itself, but if you get death stares from making a simple joke or comment, well, you know.
  5. Hierarchy--the more clearly defined the strata of initiates, full members, and various layers of leadership, the more people in the organization care about ascending to the next level. It can also lead to power struggles and abuses.
Cults may not be entirely bad, but they can very easily become so. A sports team, a club, or a musical ensemble has a specific function, but these other aspects operate on kind of a shadow level. Sometimes the secrecy and the hierarchy and the hazing and so on overtake the stated purpose of the organization and can dwarf its official purpose. It is possible for tremendous efficiency to be found in building on a tradition, providing a useful shortcut to excellence. Also, when members police their own, passing on work-ethic, procedural elegance, and functionality it can save time and effort. However, when the way the organization runs and the way the power structure works become much more than a means to an end, you may have yourself, well, a cult.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Gooey Center--The Slacker's Guide to Middle School

On a recent episode of the radio show This American Life, producer and former middle school biology teacher Alex Blumberg confessed that he wasn't sure his students had learned anything. He postulates that there is so much going on with students' lives at this age that they can't really be taught content. As a former middle school teacher, I can relate. As a former middle school-aged student, I can really relate.

I don't blame teachers for this. Well, I don't blame all teachers for this. The truth is, teachers are like anyone else: we have good qualities and bad qualities, and qualities that are good in some circumstances and not so good in others. What follows are the main archetypes of school teachers. However, since everything in a middle school is amplified, enhanced, and drawn in excruciatingly sharp relief, it is there that they will be most identifiable.

There are pretty much four flavors:
  • The Warden - tough as nails. Never smiles before Thanksgiving, and then just once every month or so. Gets results because students are too afraid to not produce. At its best, drives students to high achievement, respect, and even affection. At its worst, can devolve into near-sadism.
  • The Momma - sweet and nurturing. Knows which student has just broken up with her boyfriend, which hasn't taken a shower because the gas company has cut off service, and which has her period. Helps students through tough times, and customizes every interaction to students' precise condition of the moment. At its best, this keeps students who are near the edge from going over. At its worst, students become increasingly uncomfortable with the level of interest paid them.
  • The Song-and-Dance Man - the show must go on. Somewhere between a carnival barker, a stand-up comedian, and a poster child for caffeine, this teacher entertains, inspires, and occasionally irritates. At its best, this energizes the masses. At its worst, it whips students into a frenzy without actually imparting any knowledge.
  • The Rock - slow and steady. If Steve Wright taught middle school, this is who he'd be. These teachers stand in the tumult of their environment and take it down a notch. At its best, this teacher posses an inner calm that yogis (not Yogis or Yogis) would envy. At its worst, you need to check for a pulse.
Most teachers are, of course, some combination of these types, but one variety will mostly likely dominate. Also, because in education we form administrators from among the teachers--sometimes the best teachers, though not always--administrators will fall into these categories as well. When these qualities are found in administrators, they are very likely to be rewarded and amplified in the teachers who work for them.

Somewhere between Alex Blumberg's (mentioned above) suggestion that we shouldn't be trying to teach middle school students in the first place and what we're doing now must be another way. Instead of a pit of vipers (despair, chaos, anguish--you pick), maybe middle school could be something different entirely. By the way, keep in mind that this analysis is coming from one former middle school teacher by way of another--you'd be wise to carefully consider the source (and the source of the source).

As far as I understand it, "Middle School" is itself an attempt at another way. When I first started teaching we had "Junior High School," but I guess that gave the impression that we were dealing with high school students, only smaller. In fact, when I was in school, we just had elementary school through grade eight, though that was Catholic school, so things tend to be a tinge behind the times--I also was also still learning Palmer Method Cursive in seventh grade, and how to diagram sentences in twelfth. Middle schools came out of a need to establish a specifically geared toward students from +-sixth- through +-eighth-grade, since they didn't seem to fit into either the high school or elementary schools where we used to keep them.

One way middle schools attempt to bridge the gap is through something called teaming. The theory is that you need to schedule students in such a way that everyone who has Mr. Smith for social studies also has Ms. Jones for science. That way, the teachers can coordinate on units, stagger major projects and homework, and keep a better eye on students who are falling through the cracks. This provides a more orderly change from elementary model of one teacher for everything to the high school model of one teacher for each thing. I guess it does, just not anywhere I've seen. It mostly seems to mean that a group of teachers all have prep at the same time, and have a movie day or game day every marking period or so to build "team spirit."

Germany does things another way. There, you attend one of five different kinds of secondary schools, each with specific objectives. About 28% attend the Gymnasium for the final 9 years of school, which is the clearest path to university. The others attend some kind of business education, or trade school for perhaps 6 years. It's possible to go on to higher ed from the other schools, but it's not inevitable. In this system, not every student reads Chaucer for an entire semester in an effort to teach him/her how to type. On the downside, if you don't read Chaucer in school, you probably never will.

Similarly, in Harry Potter, you are sorted on your first day of middle school. At Hogwarts, an old hat decides whether you are to be brave, clever, pure (bigoted?), or miscellaneous. Your own desire and choice enters the equation, but a significant aspect of your school life is determined for you on your very first day.

Howgarts and lots of less-imaginary schools recognize that the social context of school matters enough to place you in proximity to students who are like you in some way. This is also a side advantage/disadvantage of other attempts to create homogeneous grouping, such as the German system. When students are "sorted," they only need to interact with those of similar, well, something. We used to call it "tracking," but that's out of style now. If the pattern of education policy-recycling holds, look for it to return by about 2015.

Despite the energy dedicated to the results of the Hogwarts sorting, however, every student is presented with the same academic content, at least in the early years. It goes to the larger question of what must every member of a society must know, even if she will be changing oil or he will be cleaning toilets. The question is what happens if a union worker becomes a union official, and then a politician? If someone made you read F. Scott Fitzgerald when you were thirteen, are you more likely to have a thought about problems that come in spite of, or because of, social class? On the other hand, maybe those inclined to think these thoughts will do so whether or not they are forced to read things that attempt to spark this thinking.

Homogeneous grouping is, in its ways, attractive. It is tempting to look at a pack (hoard, cluster, pile--you pick) of middle school'rs and attempt to separate them into the good ones and the bad ones. On the other hand, there is something to be said for late-bloomers, and as one myself, I am wary of any system that attempts to lock students into a destiny at a moment in time when no one should need to commit to who they are.

So far, I've been generous with identifying problems, and a bit more stingy with solutions. Therefore, here's a six-part plan to fix the whole thing (You're welcome.):
  1. Basic-level vocational training for all - Every student should learn how to make bread, wire a lamp, sew a button, and change spark plugs. Some students will find that they are pretty good at this stuff, others won't. Those who do may want to peruse these things further (which would be better than the current selection process, which mostly gets kids who don't like school); those who don't will gain some appreciation for those who do. Also, it would be great if students would be doing actual work, rather than just learning how to do work.
  2. Arts education for all - Self-serving, I know, but the arts is one arena where middle school-aged students really can do some impressive things (see also here, and here). They should all be shown that they can draw, should be given the opportunity to sing--though this is awkward through the voice change, it's not harmful, should be allowed to continue with the instruments they started when they were much younger, and should be encouraged to read and write things that move them. If nothing else, it will give them somewhere to put all of that angst.
  3. No more one-size-fits-all high schools - Part of what makes middle schools so pointless is that just about everyone goes on to the same high school experience. Middle school would seem less pointless if what you did there, you know, mattered.
  4. Authentic placement criteria - If we are to place students based on how they did in middle school, it should not rely heavily on what the teacher thinks of the students. Even great middle school students can be exceedingly irritating, so requiring them to earn favor with a teacher shouldn't determine success or failure. Beware scoring methods where the teacher's opinion counts for ten points, and the grade in the teacher's class counts for another ten, and the student's attitude counts for another ten--as if that's not the same thing three times over.
  5. Pay attention to the social stuff - Adolescence is hugely wrapped up in social strata, power, and the attempt to fit in/be noticed. Trying to find healthy ways (like some sports teams), and minimize unhealthy ways (like some sports teams) for students to band together and work out who they are may help to channel some of this stuff into more productive directions.
  6. Teach academic skills - Sadly, this often devolves into giving grades for neatness and completeness of notebooks. However, if done well, teaching the skills it takes to learn and retain information as a separate discipline from the actual content could equip students with the skills actually needed at the next level.
Anyone who has spent significant amounts of time with kids of this age, and significant amounts of time in their schools, knows we don't have it right yet. When you don't have it right, the worst thing you can do is leave it the same. Even if we somehow make it worse, that will help to instruct us on how to turn it around.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Somewhere in your school district is a group of people who care a lot more about standardized testing than you do. Since you're reading this, you may be a Slacker, which means it's possible that someone in your school district cares about lots of things more than you do. Still, I'm guessing it's true for everyone else as well, assuming, of course, that your name doesn't start with "Dr. Betsy," or "Dr. Dennis." Oh, dear, I hope your name doesn't start this way...

Because there are very smart people who care a great deal about standardized testing, there are lessons that can be gleaned from what your school is currently doing to game the system. I don't mean cheating, although people have tried that too (see here and here). I mean perfectly legitimate ways that schools use to improve test scores, many of which require little or no additional effort. Here are a few tricks, and ways to adapt them your own Slacker ways.

What they know:
Statistics matter - Schools must make (or "meet," as we all seem to say) Adequate Yearly Progress. If they do, they get to keep their funding, get to stay open, and get a little plaque celebrating their status as "Adequate." This is determined, however, through a more complicated formula than you might expect. Rather than a simple matter of reaching a passing score, it is tied to all sorts of statistical trickery. Like the near cousins lies and damned lies, statistics can be used to tell a story--and best of all, you choose the story. My school met AYP not by having our scores reach a certain threshold (they didn't), or by making significant improvements in scores (they may even have gone down). We met it through a morass of "safe harbor" and "confidence intervals" and other mathematical voodoo that defies simple explanation. If you'd like a complicated explanation, see the 54 page document called, and this is funny, "Understanding Your Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)."
How you can use this:
Spin and statistics are closely linked to one another. You're probably already well-versed in some forms of comparative analysis--but everyone failed that quiz, or no one turned that in on time. However, you should experiment with some others as well--yes, I failed that, but right now I'm failing many fewer things than last (month, year, time I was in 9th grade...). Also, keep in mind that 87% of statistics are made up on the spot, so don't spend a lot of effort on the research.

What they know:
The report itself matters - You feel like you spend the entire month of April taking high-stakes tests. In truth, you spend three days in April taking high-stakes tests. You spend the rest of the month taking relatively low-stakes tests. Your school knows that only the Math and Reading PSSAs count toward AYP, and consequently get reported in the newspaper. We pretend to take the other tests seriously, but we've already shot our collective wad on the Math and Reading and basically just coast through the others.
How you can use this:
Kids with good grades do this sort of thing all the time. In your syllabus (if you've lost it, you can probably find the same stuff in the online grade program) is some kind of formula that tells you how much everything is worth. In there you will find the high-value stuff, and some general padding to make things look more legit. Many teachers communicate this by dong a "total points" calculation--10 point quizzes are worth exactly 10% as much as 100 point tests. Others use the "weighting" option to tweak the points so that quizzes have a certain value regardless of how many questions are on them. Either way, figure out what something's worth before you put effort into it, or not.

What they know:
Take care of yourself - Schools have studied data that says students do better on testing if they've had breakfast. So, we feed you breakfast on days of testing that we care about. We can't control how well-rested you are, but we'd take control over that too if we could.
How you can use this:
Take care of yourself. There are limits to what this can do for you, and I've probably tested those limits as much as you have. Skipping the studying entirely in favor of a good night's sleep means that you will ready for peak performance, but will have no information to write down on the paper. Still, it's a handy excuse for giving up and going to play video games.

What they know:
Demographics matter - However, not in the way you may think. They matter in a sort of Bizzaro, bass-akwards way. It probably started with the fact that standardized testing has a long history of problems with racial bias, which you can start checking out here. Rather than deal with the underlying problem, NLCB (we don't say "No Child Left Behind," or even "so-called No Child Left Behind" anymore because everyone knows the name doesn't match what the legislation has actually done to education) pretended to care through an unfunded mandate. For AYP calculation, if your school has a high enough number of minorities, or economically disadvantaged, or even special education (see below) students, these subgroups must meet the higher standard on their own. In other words, if your demographic is well-represented in a school, you no longer only belong to the student body as a whole, but to your a sub-group as well.
How you can use this:
You can't really. If you're a minority, you're entitled to any advantages you can get. If you're not, it's too late to start.

What they know:
IEPs matter - IEPs matter in standardized testing in much the same way demographics matter, that is: kind of backward. There are some adaptations made for the testing experience itself, but Pennsylvania has exempted itself from adapting the content of the PSSA. This means that you may be in 11th grade, taking the equivalent of 8th grade math, but you will still take the 11th grade math PSSA.
How you can use this:
You can't. Not here anyway. We'll do a whole thing on what IEPs can do for you, and how to get yourself one, but some other time. For this, it doesn't really matter.

What they know:
Slow and steady - The best way to prepare for any large and important task is to prepare continually and non-specifically. If your school has a "daily vocabulary word" or a "math problem of the day" or a "Drop Everything And Read" program, it may be something based on this theory. The College Board even publishes a Question of the Day for the SAT, probably to prove that they are our benevolent overlords.
How you can use this:
My father has a theory that if he would lift a small child every week at church that his strength would increase in line with the child's growth, so that eventually he'd be able to lift a full-grown person. He's never had the attention span to find out if this works, so he can just assume that it would. The merit of this theory is that a drop of water can level a mountain, given enough time and enough of its little friends. We have a similar axiom in music: ten 6-minute work sessions are much more likely to stick with you than an hour straight. It's a tough one for Slackers to make use of, especially since our efforts tend to come in the form of furious sprints from behind, rather than slow and steady progress. It is worth noticing, however, that if more benefit can be gained from the same amount of work, this is probably something we'd be interested in.

What they know:
Environment matters - If you take the SAT in a room with a marching band practicing right outside your window, there's going to be an incident report filed. For the PSSAs (the ones that that matter, anyway), our school converts the cafeteria to testing central. We adjust the bells so that there are no distractions during the tests. We provides nice long breaks, complete with thumping pop music to get the blood going. Even the cafeteria workers prepare lunch on those days in total silence so that nothing interferes with the testes' (testers'? testingers's??) efforts.
How you can use this:
Again, Slackers are rather sunk on this one. If we do our homework, it's going to be on the bus, or in front of the TV, or during chorus. These, as you know, are terrible places to try to concentrate, but they are better than skipping the work entirely (except for chorus. That should just never happen.) Still, if something is of high point value (see above), requires concentration (even from you), and your girlfriend isn't taking the same course that semester, you really should try to find a work-space that gives you a fighting chance.

What they know:
Cut everything else out - This sounds ridiculous, but it's more common than you think. A friend of mine was interviewing for an administrative position in a school district and was marveling to the interviewer about his school's test scores. He said, "Well, our kids don't play the flute." The truth is, we can make the test scores whatever you want, its just a matter of how much of the rest of it you're willing to cut away.
How you can use this:
Don't use this. Okay, maybe it's good to have a thought about how many activities you can add to your schedule and still contribute well to all of them, plus function in school. On the whole, however, don't do this. School is important, but the other stuff you do may prepare you for life just as well.

It's tough for Slackers to care about grades. In fact, if you want an excellent rant on getting rid of grades entirely, check out this exceprt from Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (more on this another time as well). It's tough for real educators to care about standardized tests. The problem with grades and standardized tests is that our well-developed rants about them fail so badly at making them go away. For now, it's probably worth it to game the numbers so that they come out more in our favor. In fact, proving that we can do this so easily may be more effective than the rants ever could be.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

And What are You Going to Be When You Grow Up?

At some point people stopped asking me what I was going to be, and started asking what I was going to do. I don't know if this was because the '70s ended and some kind of fad ended along with it, or because I wasn't a little kid anymore. Either way, it sets off my political correctness alarm. I guess it's good to acknowledge that what a person does every day for money shouldn't entirely define who he is; however, I'm not so sure it's works as well for kids.

I think too many people choose what to do without taking inventory of who they are, what they like doing, and how they would spend their time if they had a real a choice in the matter. Some of this may be due to the remarkable achievements that young people make so early in life. Kids are already soccer players at 4, science majors in 9th grade, and have selected their dream colleges before they're out of middle school. Then, a few years later, they get a degree in German Renaissance Literature and a graduate degree in Ancient Runes, followed by a job in a coffee shop and a move back home with their parents. Much of this is due to the fact that we don't take real vocational training very seriously anymore, but that will have to wait for another post.

Three things before I go on:
  • This is not just when-I-was-a-kid-things-were-different curmudgeon crap. I know that my own generation was a part of making things this way. Even if things were a little different when I was younger, many people my own age fell victim to the same wrong-headed thinking anyway.
  • This is not to blame school counselors. I say this not only to shield myself from the very lovely; very, very smart; and very, very, very powerful women who work in the guidance office at my school. I say this because I think a lot of the shoddy career discernment is happening before the professionals are even involved. By the time you're taking the SATs and applying for colleges, you've already got some pretty firm ideas in place. Besides, school counselors are more in the business of helping you to achieve your dreams than changing them.
  • This could be like one of those weight-loss methods, or get rich in real estate things--just because something worked for me doesn't mean that it's a good method. In fact, that axiom is probably a Slacker Guide topic all on its own.

The problem with the way we choose a career these days is that students tend to respond to the wrong set of data. "I like science, therefore I should be a scientist." Well, what is it you like about science? Is it being introduced to a novel, thrilling, and vast concept every few weeks? Is it engaging in something mentally taxing and working your way through it? Is it working with a teacher you really admire for her intelligence and enthusiasm?

If so, you may find that the daily work of many working scientists--e.g. 1. Distribute a solution to a reagent with a micro-pipet. 2. Repeat. 3. Repeat...--isn't quite the same as what attracted you to the sciences in the first place.

Choosing what you're going to do every day for forty years or so should involve some measure of looking at what these people do every day. It's a complicated set of variables to manipulate, but try this simple flowchart (this one is for music careers, but it can easily be adapted to your own interests):

If it's not entirely obvious how this works, take yourself through an example. For instance, if you would like to work outside, be your own boss, and get paid for what you produce (rather than punching a clock) you could either be a rock star, or a bum--depending on earnings and fringe benefits. Notice also, if you end up in music teaching and find it lacking, you can move over to retail with similar schedules and earning potential. Similarly, if you enjoy the perks of recording engineers, but would like to avoid all of the actual work, you can slide over to record executive...or, once again, bum.

If the above flowchart isn't as user-friendly and obvious as I intended, try these tips:
  1. Pay special attention to what people in your potential career actually do at work. Case in point: I very seriously considered becoming a priest. Aside from the fact that I really liked girls (more, perhaps, than the average guy did--especially when you factor in the guys who turned out to be gay), I see now that what I actually wanted to do was say Mass--probably not even say Mass, but chant it. In Latin. I didn't think about visiting sick people, attending parish council meetings, and writing (not just delivering, but, you know...preparing) homilies.
  2. Don't be suckered into something just because you're good at it. We all get a lift from doing something well and being praised for it. However, eventually the amount of praise goes way down, even if you're actually good. At that point, your motivation will need to come from elsewhere.
  3. Distinguish between people you admire and jobs you want to do. Your favorite teacher, coach, boss, etc. may not be a proper representative of his field and you may find that everyone else in that field is a disappointment.
  4. Test yourself on your beliefs about your own strengths. If you think you could be a writer, try to write something every day and see how long you can keep up with it. If you like working with computers, do it for a whole day sometime--without playing video games.
  5. Consider the money, but don't let that be the only factor. Market forces can change over a period of time, especially in the amount of time it takes to get your degree/certification/credentials. Today's safe bet may be over by then. Your dream job that you consider too impractical may suddenly be booming by the time you're ready. Plus, you could always marry money. What would you want your job to be if that happened? That's probably a good indicator.
A final suggestion: beware bias in all career advice you're given. As Mr. Weasley said, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." Bias can even come from a pretty good motivation--I like what I do for a living; you're smart and skilled in this field; therefore, you should do this too. This is not enough. No matter how much I seem to like what I do, it isn't enough to make you do it. And it certainly isn't enough to have you try to be who I am.