31 October 2007

Thoughts on a Classroom Discussion

I had a talk with some students – and I think they’re pretty average students – about the meaning of the word “freedom.” We had some time at the end of class, and it seemed like a good, educational time filler. When asked what freedom means, the initial answer was something like, “being able to do whatever you want.” It was expected (though not universal).

Anyway, we then had a little talk about what anarchy might really be like, if it were sustainable. The flow of the conversation from the idea of freedom to that of anarchy was natural. I make a great effort to not direct discussions like this too much. Once on the idea of anarchy – or what I posed to them as completely unbridled personal freedom – was fleshed out a little, I think they had a better idea of freedom and responsibility. The nice thing is, I didn’t have to say much at all. The students got it, mostly by themselves.

Now, I understand that they can’t always live up to the standards of behavior they are able to discuss in class. They’re not there yet. But since they can talk about ideas like freedom and responsibility, and do so quite well, then they can certainly be held accountable for their actions with regard to them.

An interesting concept, that: teach, discuss, hold accountable for the material.

28 October 2007

Dare I Say?

Former senator John Edwards jumped on the “give something back” in the name of “economic equality” bandwagon this week. His latest plans are to create a “West Point for teachers” and create “a universal pre-K program to get kids ‘on track.’” He also said he would create a “college for everyone” program, whereby students who take preparatory courses and stayed out of trouble would have their first year paid for. It is, after all, all about the children.

But there’s something about universal programs – as anyone who has read this blog before will know – that strike me as just plain wrong, and lazy as well. Mr. Edwards’ plan would have kids in government run schools earlier. Note the pre-K program would be universal, which probably means that the curriculum would be standardized and attendance would be compulsory. What’s more, his plan of “college for everyone” would keep “everyone” in school longer. And just what will all of these children (or men/women-children by the time they get out of college) do for their 21-22 years of education?

If that doesn’t smell like a hyper-extended adolescence, I don’t know what would. The giveaway is that Mr. Edwards wants to fund these things federally. The pre-K and one year of “free” college, one could reasonably expect, would be extended over time. If I, as a student, don’t have to pay for college, then college becomes cheapened. It turns into a “right.”

And how might this educational machine keep moving? Well, the engine would be the “Education West Point” idea. No better way to standardize, check-list-ize, and sterilize the art of teaching than by creating a central educational training facility. There’s something about this that smells of – dare I say – communism. I’m not saying that Mr. Edwards is a communist, not by a long shot.

What I am saying is that with Mr. Edwards, as well as with the other major Democratic nominees, there is a noticeable tendency toward dishing out programs and benefits at the expense of realized capitalistic drive and ambition. That, in my estimation, is socialism leaning toward communism. Remember, it was Marx who said, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Tax the mean, nasty rich; give to the masses. It is a plan to power.

27 October 2007

Random Dylan Thought

Lately, I’ve been listening to a fair bit of Dylan while at work; it is pretty school-friendly music. A few songs aside (Rainy Day Women #12 & 35), few folks could object to the lyrics.

I’ve had the lyrics for “Slow Train” going through my head for most of the day. The album by nearly the same name (Slow Train Coming) came out in 1979, but the lyrics for "Slow Train" seem to be timeless. Dylan croons about oil, ambition, deceitfulness and delusions, and it all feels so current, even nearly 30 years later.

Perhaps that’s a reason to feel some comfort. Perhaps the world really doesn’t change, fundamentally, as much as we’re led to believe. The same fallacies are out there, with different masks and different proper names – but there nonetheless. And the same hope is out there. Strong fundamentals, I think, can unmask and overcome the changing face of falseness. (And I’m not talking about fundamentalism…far from it.)

25 October 2007

Another Call

It's been over six years since military operations started in Afghanistan in response to the 9-11 attacks. The war in Iraq is nearing the end of its fourth year. Both wars were, and are, fought on the ground by infantry, mechanized infantry and armored troops. Air and sea power are very important, but it's the boots that hold the ground.

I've said this before, but it needs to be said over and over - the US must increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. 100,000 is a conservative number.

This increase, if started today, would be six years behind schedule. An increase of this magnitude cannot happen overnight, or over a year for that matter. It takes time to recruit, train and field troops. It also takes skilled, experienced instructors - those who have learned the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq - to train troops.

However "politically impossible" it might be to think long term in an election year (now there's a wicked paradox), increasing military manpower is an issue that needs attention now. For all the claims that our military is "overstretched," there is a palpable lack of a solution outside of "bring them all home now."

But much like enforcing immigration law, I'm sure that addressing military manpower will fall by the wayside until the next president is in office. Or not. In January 09 there will probably already be talk about the mid-term elections. Then increasing military strength, addressing illegal immigration, reforming public education, reforming Social Security, and a litany of other "hot button" issues will be shelved as "too sensitive" or used as "wedge issues" while these problems linger and grow.

22 October 2007

From Edwards to Dawkins

Just surfing around and doing a little reading this morning when I came across a quote on Townhall:
How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents? It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods? Isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought out?

John Edwards? No, that's a quote from Richard Dawkins, author and atheist.

The wonderful thing about Dawkins' - and Edwards' - point of view is that while arguing that children should always be allowed to think things out for themselves, they willfully neglect how to achieve the basic instruction of children on how to think.

But there is little doubt that for Mr. Dawkins there is no separation between how to think and what to think. The method is the answer; think in this manner and the answer is self evident. How that passes for free thought and free will baffles me to no end.

18 October 2007

Further Thoughts on Inclusion

In response to a comment on Fear, Parents, and Schools.

Anonymous,

Perhaps my opening paragraph did not adequately focus in on the specific students I intended to. As I look back, and with the helpful eyes of my wife, I can see how you could interpret what I wrote as desiring to exclude all special needs students. I apologize for not being more specific, more clear with my words.

I intended to focus on students who are both highly disruptive and have some way to blame the behavior on some malady or another - or some social situation or another, for that matter.

By no means did aim to suggest or imply that all special needs, special education, physically disabled or emotionally disturbed students should be removed from classrooms without question.

I have had some wonderful experiences working with students who experience some of the above problems. They have worked hard, given their best, and I have done the same. Some solid learned was achieved both in the core subject and in the realm of life lessons.

The students I intended to place front and center in my writing are those who - for whatever reason - decide to reject their chance at an education by continually disrupting the classroom. Many times, their behavior is blamed on some mental or physiological disorder, thus making the child blameless. It’s a tricky piece of subjectivity in some cases to decide what a student should or should not be able to do or control. But many children (and I mean any child here, not just those with special needs) quickly learn what they can do without consequence and what they cannot. For students who pole vault the behavioral line repeatedly, holding them blameless for their behavior does not prepare them in any way for the outside world that awaits them after school. Additionally, allowing those students to become serial classroom disruptors is a violation of the liberty of the rest of the students in the classroom. (For more on ideas concerning liberty and equality, I highly recommend Charles Fried's Modern Liberty.)

All students are not equal. To claim that they are - and I'm not trying to be offensive - is simply delusional. Students come with a wide variety of skills, potential and stick-to-itiveness. To expect uniformity, equality, among them is hoping for the impossible. And again, I’m talking about all students.

However, without doubt, all students deserve an equal opportunity to get the best education available. Education is not, however, an entitlement in the sense that all deserve an education without condition of proper behavior or responsibility. Two of the most important lessons any student learns are how to control him or herself in a formal situation and how to bear personal responsibility for his or her actions. All students must learn these things. Those who choose not to should not be allowed to take the opportunity away from those who strive toward them.

I hope this clarifies my thoughts on the matter. Thanks.

Right, Wrong and Mr. Edwards

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that fathers – or to be more inclusive, parents – should teach their children the difference between right and wrong. They should also reinforce it consistently with reasoned discussion when able and with strict enforcement whenever it is deemed necessary. This, I believe, is how children learn the difference between right and wrong.

Not so for John Edwards. In response to a question whether or not he would be comfortable with a teacher reading a story “celebrating same-sex marriage” to second graders, Mr. Edwards responded:
"Yes, absolutely. I want my children . . . to be exposed to all the information . . . even in second grade . . . because I don't want to impose my view. Nobody made me God. I don't get to decide on behalf of my family or my children. . . . I don't get to impose on them what it is that I believe is right."
And this man wants to be president? If he honestly believes that he cannot impose his own view of right and wrong in his own house, why should the American electorate allow him to wind-sock in the White House? By an extension of Mr. Edwards’s own logic, citizens would be able to choose on their own, without regard to law or custom, what is right and wrong under his administration.

Obviously, Mr. Edwards is not a leader in any way, shape or form. His conscious admission that he cannot decide what is right or wrong in his own house negates any claim he may have had that he could be president of this great country.

17 October 2007

Fear, Parents, and Schools

Originally posted on American Thinker - 17 October 2007.

While I agree with Chrisopher Chantrill's article "Fear is the Missing Ingredient in Government Schools" for the most part, I think that perhaps he's missing an important point in the tale: that parents are, at least to some significant degree, guilty of pushing an agenda of "you must accommodate my student." Governments, from the local to the federal level, are guilty of bowing to this pressure. Never mind what problems the student may have - emotional, psychological, behavioral, or educational. What matters more is inclusion in a "normal" classroom regardless of the fact that students with considerable versions of the above mentioned problems have a tendency to disrupt entire classrooms on a regular basis.

It truly is the lowering of the bar to the lowest denominator, one that is not even common.

And what's more, the rules on weeding out students who do not belong in the general population of a school are so wickedly restrictive that, short of actually committing an offense like the horrific one seen in Ohio, it is nearly impossible. In some states, it takes a violent felony committed on school grounds (if memory serves correctly) for expulsion to be considered. Not on school grounds? Not a problem. No metal detector or special program can solve that issue.

The solution requires rethinking of what education is in our society. Is it a right or a privilege? Is it a state or societal responsibility or a family and a personal responsibility? Is the accommodation of the "special" student more important than the true education of the majority of students?

Put more bluntly, when should the one trump the many? How far should the bar be lowered before there is a recognition that the liberty of the majority is being trampled upon?

Without a doubt, the solution to education problems in the US has many facets, and I think that Mr. Chantrill hits on one key vehicle of change: fear. But teachers should not be the only ones who fear for their positions. Students must feel fear of being expelled for serial violations of rules. Parents must fear the consequences of what they will do with their children should they be expelled. Those children who demonstrate that they cannot operate effectively in a standard learning environment must be taught elsewhere, and that is a parental responsibility, not a state responsibility.

The ones who should be without fear, akin to the example of the patient in a hospital, are the students who follow the rules and work diligently at their studies. They are the ones who are all too frequently being left behind. They are the ones who deserve safe, orderly classrooms, professional teachers who push them to their best, and parents and administrators who guard the schools from those who do not choose to participate in learning - be they teachers or students.

Creating a Brave New World

The following is an installment of the creation of a Brave New World. The Portland Press Herald reports:

Students who have parental permission to be treated at King Middle School's health center would be able to get birth control prescriptions under a proposal
that the Portland School Committee will consider Wednesday.

The proposal would build on the King Student Health Center's practice of providing condoms as part of its reproductive health program since it opened in 2000, said Lisa Belanger, a nurse practitioner who oversees the city's student health centers.

The news here is twofold. First, it removes the responsibility of parents to truly oversee the health and well being of their children. All they have to do is allow the student to be treated at the school health center (why not just “the nurse’s office”?) and, willingly or not, they’ve turned over responsibility for the child’s sexual activity. Mom and Dad may never know what medication their child has been prescribed…all in the name of “reproductive health.”

Second is that middle-schoolers are being tacitly encouraged to have sex for fun while being “protected” from the most obvious and common down-side of promiscuous sex – becoming pregnant. If this doesn’t just scream Huxley, I don’t know what does.

Life without consequence. Sex without responsibility or repercussion. Entertainment at every corner. And no real ambition to excel, to create something more meaningful. A little soma, anyone?

A Brave New World, indeed, but is this what we want to offer our children?

16 October 2007

LtGen. Sanchez and the Media

Headlines last week shouted what retired LtGen. Sanchez said in a speech to military journalists about how President Bush handled the war. From the little that I read about it last week, it appeared that LtGen. Sanchez took the opportunity to blast the Bush administration for the usual list of grievances concerning Iraq: poor planning, not enough troops, and interagency fighting.

And then, this morning, I read a column by Jack Kelly and found out more of the story. Seems that LtGen. Sanchez spent more time and words addressing how the media reports on the war, and he was not too happy about it. I have to agree with him – reporting on the war is abysmal and needlessly politically driven.

There appears to be much more coverage, in drive-by style, of sensational singular occurrences than of the overall situation, let alone the strategies and such being pursued. It’s another instance of the American people being judged as too dumb to understand the overall situation in Iraq and what the strategy is. Or perhaps it’s an extreme instance of, as LtGen. Sanchez says, “corrosive partisan politics” propagating itself through new and old media to drive an ideology instead of reporting without bias.

Either way, and as has long been claimed by some, the American public has been and is being taken for a ride by most of the media; political bias is in the driver’s seat and emotionalism is the copilot. Rationality and common sense have been left behind.

12 October 2007

Ignoble Nobel

For many folks, awards such as the Grammies, the Oscars, the Golden Globes and a host of others, have become empty vessels of predictable PC nothingness. In my opinion, Nobel has in some instances become the same thing. Take Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize nod in 2002. Carter hadn’t been the engineer of anything rationally peaceful since Sadat and Begin signed, and lived up to, a peace treaty. Or take Yasser Arafat’s win in 1994 for supposedly building peace with Israel. Intifada anyone? And then there are the wins by Kofi Annan (2001) and Mohamed El Baradei (2005). Perhaps ElBaradei’s is somewhat legitimate, but Annan, as head of the United Nations, did more to keep unstable, even volatile, peace than to build lasting peace. At least he let people make a pretty penny in the process.

So this morning’s news of Al Gore’s Nobel Prize wasn’t all that much of a shocker for me. By his own admission, he is saving the planet. We are in grave danger, you know. Everything is melting, the seas are rising, hurricanes are a continual hazard, pestilence, famine, etc. So for Gore, the best way to fight this foe is to…make a movie. And not just any movie, but one which must now be “accompanied by materials explaining the film's inaccuracies” when shown in British schools (Wired News). And that by court order.

But Mr. Gore did not only make a movie, he also promoted it tirelessly. In doing so, he added to the “problem” of CO2 emissions by flying hither and thither to save the planet. But it’s all in the name of “educating people” and he really did it “for our children’s children’s children.” Never mind the facts here – he’s saving the planet, man.

And then there’s the whole carbon trading thing, which brings to mind Papal indulgences of long ago.

So of course Mr. Gore is the perfect candidate for Nobel this year. His “plan” will get the planet nowhere, but at least he’s making a boat-load of money in the process, much like Arafat and Annan (though at least Annan only let others make boat-loads of cash that we know of). The difference, I suppose, between the three is that Arafat took his money out in the open, and from governments (which is, by extension, from the people of Western countries). Annan allowed a sort of money recycling through the oil-for-money scam.

Gore is swindling millions and doing so right out in the open, in a personal manner. He’s a huckster selling the idea of “saving the earth” to millions of poor, misinformed, self-interested people who need direction, who need a monumental cause to believe in. Gore’s choice of “global warming” or “climate change” is a perfect fit because it fights against a largely invisible foe with weapons that make money – for some people, at least. What’s more, the fight will never end, and that too is by design. Climate changes. That is a simple fact. Therefore fighting the change can go one endlessly. For ever and ever.

Which brings me to my final point. In creating the cult of “climate change,” Mr. Gore has in effect created a secular religion. It has its own dogma, its own hierarchy, its own commandments. It also, now, has its own true believers. There’s nothing peaceful about a mob of true believers.

11 October 2007

Court Enforced Anarchy

Yesterday, an effort by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to crack down on people using false Social Security numbers to gain employment was halted by a federal judge in San Francisco (AP feed). Despite the fact that using a false Social Security number is a felony, Judge Breyer blocked the plan, which would notify employers of Social Security number “mismatches” and give them 90 days to fix the error or fire the employee, temporarily so that he “could determine whether the plaintiffs would suffer damage if the government were allowed to go forward with its plan.”

It seems very odd to me that a judge, any judge, would block DHS based on this reasoning. The plaintiffs in this case, according to the AP article, are labor and civil liberties organizations. What damages, other than reduced membership rolls, would they suffer?

But the real question is why would a judge, any judge, block a plan meant to allow for stricter adherence to existing law? If using a false Social Security number is a felony and what DHS is looking to quash is the use of false Social Security numbers to gain employment illegally, how in the world could that be considered illegal or harmful? What takes precedence here?

It appears that from Judge Breyer’s point of view, business and labor unions ability to skirt laws takes precedence and any excuse will do. The mismatch plan will cause harm to someone – never mind that “someone” is probably breaking other laws. The mismatch plan will force companies into costly measures to comply – never mind that compliance with law is the responsibility of every person and entity in the country.

I don’t want to jump off the cliff here, but it seems that there is an ever-growing cacophony of individual and “interest group” anarchistic application of the law. Hence the thought pattern that “the law is unjust if it inconveniences me.” Courts which allow and promote this thought pattern further the cause and take law-making power away from those designated to write laws, the legislature, and enforcement power away from those meant to enforce the law equally, the executive.

09 October 2007

The Ever-Filling Glass

Just a random thought after reading an article in the Boston Globe called “A Troubling Turn in American History” this morning. The article, if I followed it correctly, traces an odd path of American “mistakes” which were actually the byproducts of solutions to other problems. No religious freedom at home? Puritans came to America. On the downside, they believed (like so many other religious groups) that their way was the only way; thus religious tyranny. This is just one example in the article.

It seems to me that the author, James Carroll, seems to be mentally reaching for utopia and expecting it to become real. When he doesn’t find it in our past, he is disappointed – or disgusted – in our historical shortcomings. American history is, depending on who is doing the telling, a litany of violence and fear. Or at least that is how Mr. Carroll would have it read. The glass of America seems to be ever emptying for him. And when a great event or person in history, like Lincoln, comes along to fill the glass, Mr. Carroll eagerly seeks reasons to resume the draining.

I’m usually not much of an optimist, but I prefer to think of the American glass as continually filling despite all efforts to drain it. The problem as I see it with the idea of the ever-filling glass is that it must be replenished from within. It must have a source from which to pull endlessly.

In his article, Mr. Carroll says, “’Freedom’ has become our prison.” He means, I think, that the defense and promotion of freedom has lead to a series of unintended outcomes over the course of our history. What he fails to grasp is that, as a human endeavor, freedom and nation will never, never reach perfection. Our best hope lies in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” so that we may pursue ideas like true freedom and liberty while knowing that, because we are human, we will never achieve utopia. And that, I believe, is the source of the ever-filling glass.

07 October 2007

A Texan Messing With Texas

In a case of ever-expanding and inexplicably interwoven rights, President Bush has stepped into the middle of a capital case in Texas. He wants to ignore the verdict handed down by the state of Texas to Jose Ernesto Medelin because, according to the International Court of Justice, Mr. Medelin’s rights were violated because officers in Texas did not indicate to him that he could ask for assistance from his consulate. Even though Mr. Medelin, according to the article, had spent most of his childhood in the US, he was, and is, a Mexican citizen and therefore must be afforded the “rights” of a foreigner with regard to access to his consulate.

Also according to the article, Mr. Medelin did not begrudge the state of Texas for not offering up consular aid to him at any point during his trail. Mr. Medelin also provided a written confession of his crimes.

Just a few details about the crime Mr. Medelin confessed to. It was a gang-related crime where members found two teenage girls, gang-raped them and killed them. Mr. Medelin was convicted and given the death penalty in October 1994. One month later, Mr. Bush was elected governor of Texas.

Here are a few thoughts on this situation:

- What is the trump law of the United States? Should the federal government in general or the president in particular have direct veto authority on matters which reside entirely within one state? It is my opinion that the federal government has no business intervening in this matter as it is a state matter.

- How is it that Mr. Medelin or his advocates, can select the rules by which they play as the game goes on? Though the article doesn’t say it directly, it can be guessed that Mr. Medelin is an illegal immigrant. Did Mr. Medelin have an opportunity for an education, health care, and protection under the Constitution and other laws while residing in the US as an illegal? If so, why is it that he and others like him are able to, upon committing a dreadful crime, call upon any law or court to justify their rights – rights Mr. Medelin so willingly stripped from his victims?

- If Mr. Bush is now an advocate for Mr. Medelin now, 13 years later, why did he not do something about the matter while he was governor of Texas? It can be easily guessed that, through some twisted political calculation, Mr. Bush feels it necessary to bend to accommodate a judgment of the International Court of Justice (a name which, incidentally, immediately summons visions of Saturday morning cartoons into mind).

A final thought on this matter that, I think, gets to the heart of it. What is the highest law of the United States and who is it meant to protect? Are Constitutions (both US and individual state constitutions) truly the law of the land or are they simply used at the convenience of those clever enough to manipulate them? Who are laws built to protect, common, law-abiding citizens or thugs of all colors, creeds and nationalities?

I know what kind of country I want to live in: one where laws are written and enforced to protect the liberties of those who do their level best to obey those laws. When laws and rules used to enforce them are twisted to allow a person like Mr. Medelin to escape justice, they are no longer valid, and those who twist the rules are guilty of taking a wrecking ball to public confidence in the law. Mr. Bush has taken, for better or worse, principled stances on many issues over the course of his two terms as president. His position on the case of Mr. Medelin has no principle and, in fact, shows a lack of concern for the rule of law within the US.

06 October 2007

Thoughts on Standardization

Just a quick thought on education for this Saturday. I hope to be back writing on a more frequent basis beginning next week. Back-to-back colds (or a cold followed by a sinus infection…can’t figure out which) knocked me down for a bit.

Regardless, since I’m back in the teaching world again, I think about it more habitually than while I was in Australia. While I was away, I could think about things in a more objective manner, perhaps. Now that I’m living and working in the US again, certain issues seem to be staring me in the face.

The first is that there appears to be a drive to standardize. Curricula, lesson plans, tests, methods – all of those things that end up driving the day-to-day classroom. From the federal down to the local level, there are pressures to dictate just how things are accomplished in the classroom. Standardization is put in place, it is said, to ensure accountability. What it really does, though, is substitute for accountability.

Consider standardized curricula. If I, as a teacher, am told what to teach, how to teach and when to teach, I have no ownership of what happens in the classroom. I am a script-reader, a paper-pusher, and, some might say, a baby sitter. What’s more, I am not really accountable for what I teach. I’m just a voice box. The curriculum I operate from is an entity outside of myself; it is the one tool I have to hammer a nail and cut a pizza, so to speak.

And who is accountable for something huge like a mandated curriculum? It becomes a thing with its own life, with its own sense of being. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster created by a consortium of personalities divorced from the implementation of the curriculum and the classroom in which it is taught. As a thing completely on its own, it is the stopping point for accountability.

Another problem with the “standardization of everything” is that it seems to ignore the opposing point of view that each student learns things just a little differently and that classes within themselves have different characters about them. Some work well with some techniques, others with others. And indeed, teachers need the flexibility to explore and expand techniques to better serve their students and emphasize their own strengths.

But if teachers must use one way to teach all students (through some utopian egalitarianism), learning will fall to the lowest denominator of both student and teacher abilities.

Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there is one way for all teachers of subject “x” to teach all students in that subject one thing. Perhaps teaching is more science than technique (or applied science). Perhaps educational plans should be developed in a checklist fashion and the “dream” of using computers to deliver learning will, at some point, come to fruition. But then where would students gain experience attempting to act like young adults in a formal setting? I don’t suppose that there are standardized curricula on acting like an adult. Or is that called “life coaching”?