Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All too easy

Remember when Vader had tripped up Luke, dumping him into the carbon freezing unit? 

“All too easy.”

Yep, that was the quote that the Sith Lord uttered before Luke leapt out of the pit and proceeded to engage in the most bad-ass light saber battle of the entire series.  Not only that, Luke later went Joe Pesci on Vader in Jedi, making the the phrase “all too easy” seem like a total and complete farce.

Kind of like this report by the Center for American Progress which shows that kids feel like school is much too easy.  The thesis is that kids are not being challenged by the current curriculum and that more and more kids need rigor introduced into their academic lives.

“…21 percent of 12th graders said their
math work was often or always too easy, and 56 percent reported their civics work was too easy. Another 55 percent reported that their U.S. history work was too easy.”

This is the kind of report that makes teachers everywhere scratch their heads and wonder if the makers of the survey actually realize that people they are talking to are teenagers.  These are the same people that often hum “Call Me Maybe” while texting naked photos to each other before downing a 750 Grey Goose from their parents liqueur cabinet.  These are people that like Snooki and believe that Lebron James is one of the best basketball players ever to pick up the rock. 

Why the skepticism of the report?  It’s probably the twelve years of teaching experience or something to that effect.  And while I’d agree that students want to be challenged to think, they want to do so on their own terms that are set up by their own work ethic built around their own values.  Basically they want to think like an adult while still acting like a teenager.  You know, like we wanted.  Only now parents are hip enough to realize that the child’s path of least resistance is a simpler way to easy parenting; give the kid what they want and they won’t be so hard to deal with.  Thus kids are ill prepared for college and thus the problem is that OBVIOUSLY high school isn’t hard enough. 

This report ranks up there with saying that Ron Burgundy is a genuine news reporter.  No seriously, I see him on that big screen thingy and he is reporting the news.  Therefore he must be a serious news reporter because the facts are staring us right in the face.  And all the while  Will Ferrell is laughing at us behind our backs because we can’t seem to translate sarcasm, comedy, or bad data points like asking teenagers if high school is too easy. 

In a society that sucks up to children to the point of turning Las Vegas to a Desert Disney, maybe we need to look at all the other data that says that kids don’t find school easy at all.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Monumental decision, and poverty

It’s not every day when you say “hey, let’s not do Monument Valley and just go back to the Grand Canyon for the fourth time.”  It sounds oh so obnoxious until you realize that the other three times we went to the canyon it involved lots of tourists, lots and lots of driving, and inlaws.  This time we could pace ourselves and make it to Lake Powell with more mellow time to spare, and thus save Monument Valley for next summer’s trip we are already planning.

We started from our base of operations for Sedona’s hiking adventures, Flagstaff.  I happen to like Flagstaff.  Part of that might be from the nice motel we stayed at, the Little America Hotel.  The room was huge and front desk guy took our recommendation and fulfilled our request to be away from everything that involved tourist busses, kids, or any distraction that would ruin our enhanced vacation.  He put us on a corner room overlooking the woods were the only thing bothering us was, well, nothing.

We started out from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon after a serious thunderstorm, and immediately we became concerned that the view of the canyon would be obscured.  We were dead wrong.  The canyon had pockets of clouds inside the rim and it made for an even grander view.  The sun then broke through creating a gorgeous image of colors and landscape that we couldn’t even dream of watching.  It was pretty special.  Unlike past runs to the canyon, this time we avoided the more tourist-laden Visitors Center and west side points and opted to head toward uncharted territory to the east.  I highly recommend that you take the time to drive to Desert Watch if you have the opportunity.  You see back into the Grand Canyon from the east side, and also you get to see out along the Colorado Plateau.  Views of the Painted Desert, Navajo Mountain, and various jagged canyons were a treat to the eyes and the soul.  If there is a time when someone says “this is God’s Country”, that would be it. 

We zipped down the east face of the Grand Canyon, past the fantastic views of the Little Colorado River, into scenes of total poverty.  Ukiah is not unknown to Native American poverty conditions.  Some of the reservation land a mile away from the high school looks like it came from a Third World country.  Navajo land was a little bit different in that these were small collectives out in the middle of nowhere-desert-country.  Often we would see single-wide trailers in little clusters with particularly nice Chevy or Ford trucks parked next to them.  It was a bizarre sight that impacted us for hours between the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell.  I won’t get crazy into Native America politics but something is inherently wrong when you drop into extreme poverty the second you entire reservation land.  This reservation land and its “citizens” also receive payments from the federal government, something many Americans aren’t privy to.  Lots of things don’t add up.

We ended up sipping wine, watching the sunset over the Lake Powell resort and preparing for the trek to Bryce the next day.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sedona three ways

Anyone that tells you that Sedona isn’t beautiful is lying.  In fact, if someone is shrugging their shoulders saying “eh, Sedona is ok”, then what they are trying to do is keep you away from Sedona because it is really that wonderful to behold.

Here’s the deal; only three types of people are going to be in Sedona, Arizona.  The first are the filthy rich.  Sedona has the stink of a wealthy playground with art galleries, new age yoga studios, and houses that rival those you will find in any area of Beverly Hills.  It is clearly evident that the rich escape to Sedona because it is fairly remote and very beautiful.  The good news is that you skip all that and only go downtown when you need to pass through.

The second type of person seeking Sedona is the kind that will hunt out vortexes after stopping by the local crystal shop to get their palms read by Madame Handlinereader.  We got familiar whiffs of Mendocino County near one of the “vortex” locations at Cathedral Rock, although the only impact from that location was a sudden desire to wolf down a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.  These people normally congregate near water (which is not in abundance in most of Sedona) or near shops that insist they are selling tobacco products.   

The final type of person seeking out Sedona was us; the nature lovers.  The beauty of the area is awe inspiring and yes, I would classify it on the must see list of places to visit before you kick the bucket.  We hiked near Cathedral Rock and the Oak Creek the first day.  It was a fairly short hike that introduced us to the red rock that Sedona is famous for.  The second day we made out from our home base of Flagstaff (about 40 minutes away) and hiked the Brin’s Mesa/Soldier’s Pass Loop, about 5.5 miles.  We did it between 7 and 10 a.m. and I highly recommend it, although the half-way point has some vertical climb that makes you think you are on a Stair Master.  That same afternoon we went to Faye Canyon and did a short two mile jaunt into and out of the canyon, coming up close and personal with the beauty of the area.  It was pretty damn awesome.

Couple of side notes about Sedona.

-They love roundabouts.  From the south entrance to town (actually a different town called Oak Creek) to the downtown area there are about eight traffic congestion experiments that create interesting situations between tourists, townsfolk, and crazy ass drivers that think roundabouts are simply mini-Indy 500 ovals.

-Hike early in the morning and try to show up on weekdays.  We got there Sunday night and the road between Sedona and Flagstaff was absolutely packed.  For the next two days it was much more manageable.  Sedona got hot around noon and then the thunderstorms showed up around 3.  And they were pretty nasty.

-Stay in Flagstaff unless you get a deal in Sedona. 

Monument Valley is next on the list, although we are kicking around other ideas.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Phoenix. A hot mess.

We just missed that.  Not the friendly confines of Chase Field, but the dust storm that’s behind it.  We missed it by a day. 

And that pretty much encapsulates what Phoenix is in a nut shell; a hot mess.  I’ve been in Phoenix twice and all I see is dust, heat, and shopping.  Seriously, what economic downturn?  Every twenty miles there is a shopping center with a Target, Home Depot, Kohls, Barnes and Noble, and a Marshalls/Ross.  It’s actually fairly disgusting.  And the food is California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, or a plethora of small chain (Applebees, Chili’s) restaurants that serve bland blah.  Did I mention that it was hot? 

Oh, and I can’t forget Last Chance.  Those of you that are into Nordstrom probably know the outlet store called Nordstrom Rack, a cheaper version with surplus stock.  Well, Last Chance is the step below the Rack, and Phoenix contains the only one in the United States.  Basically you can get designer anything at prices that floor even the savviest of shoppers.  $176 Cookie Johnson pants for $10.  Beat that with a stick.

Here’s the thing about Last Chance.  The store is basically a cross between a location for the Hunger Games, and a bazaar on the Indian-Pakistani border, with a few screaming children interspersed just to trip you up.  It is crazy.  I watched women crawling over each other to get through to the hand bag table, elbowing each other in the throat to find the deal that would complete them.  Security guards were warning people that any fighting would result in ejection from the store for the day.  The “Christmas in July” sale was going to be the next day and someone had began to pitch a tent in from of the store to be the first in for the deals.  It was surreal.  I could handle it for a few minutes.  My wife could have spent hours.  We compromised on two. 

Thankfully Phoenix is a thoroughfare and not the destination.  The destination is the mountains of Central Arizona. 

Some place called Sedona.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

By the time I get to Arizona

My wife and I are in the desert state that is Arizona.  We are in the beginning of a Southwest trip that started in Phoenix, is now in Tucson, and will include Sedona, Flagstaff, Monument Valley, Page, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and finally Las Vegas.  Yes, that’s a lot. 

I’ve been to Tucson once many years ago and Northern Arizona a few times to the Grand Canyon.  I have to admit, I’m liking Tucson more and more.  The desert is beautiful with cacti, and fauna of the cutest nature.  Those damn Desert Cottontails are snuggle worthy and the Roadrunners are some of the coolest things I’ve seen.  Afternoon thunderstorms have kept the temperature more moderate, although it has also doused us with a bit of humidity that is slightly annoying. 

We are off to Sedona tomorrow to swim in the vortex of something or other.  I may become some ethereal creature that creates ultimate world peace, or I might just swim around in a creek.  We’ll see.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

AP Results

-Only two 1's out of both classes. Makes me wonder what little push over the edge all those 2's needed. In #apcompgov, it was simple study.

-Dead on national averages in both #apush and #apcompgov. Frustrating as hell, although #apcompgov rose almost 15% from last year.

Those were two tweets from last year when I received my AP test score results.  This year’s results are in and the end game is a combination of good news, bad news. 

Good News.  I still only had two students get a 1, even though more students took AP tests this year. 

Bad News.  There were a lot of students scoring a 2. 

Good News.  There were hardly any 3 scores.  Why is that good?  Because there are a whole lot of 4’s and 5’s.  In fact the interesting aspect of the test results were how either you had a 2 or a 4/5; either you know what was going on or you didn’t. 

Good News.  AP Comp Gov scores went up about 9% from last year.  That means that since 2010, scores have risen from about 40% passing to over 60% passing.  When I looked at my overall pass rate since I started teaching AP Comp Gov, it is still well over the national average.

Bad News.  APUSH scores went down about 5% to just below the national average.  Again, a single 1 and a bunch of 2’s, and a lot of 4’s and 5’s.

Good News.  With the exception of three or four students, the scores were not entirely surprising.  A couple of students that I thought would do better actually did not pass.  While students that had a very traumatic year blitzed the test. 

Bad News.  English Language Learners taking the test did very poorly.  How poorly?  Let’s just say that if half would have passed (depending on the class) it could have been a 15-20% bump. 

What do all the results say? 

Well after reading the instructional reports I notice that students performed above the mean in nearly every category on the test except one; Free Response Questions.  Now, in AP Comparative Government I’m going to over look some of the written scores because simple nuances in wording could be the tilt between getting an answer right and wrong.  Some of the nuances are a bit ridiculous and students that might have known an answer didn’t get it right because they fumbled with words.  However the FRQ’s in APUSH are disconcerting.  We worked on writing a whole lot and it seems like the act of building legitimate evidence into a workable essay is proving to be quite a problem.  It seems like more time needs to go not necessarily into how to write the essay as much as how to integrate the APUSH information into a logical argument, and then get that down on paper.  There are ways to do that and I’m guessing I need to work on it during Week One.

While I’m not excusing the results, I will say that there is a correlation between the enrollment policy in APUSH, and the dropping of test scores.  My first year’s APUSH student entry was almost entirely controlled by grades, teacher recommendations, and writing.  Now APUSH is open enrollment and I never tell a kid not to take the AP test.  Again, not an excuse but something that should be taken into consideration.

I think I’m a better teacher in both AP classes as engagement is way up, and more and more students leave the class feeling like they actually learned something.  Now the challenge is the translate that into moving those 2’s to 3’s while maintaining the sizable numbers of 4’s and 5’s. 

Let’s do it!   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The biggest problem with Education

I’m asked often about what I would do to “fix” the Education system.  In fact, today I was asked that question and the ensuing conversation almost always starts to stray.

Person:  So what would you do to fix our broken education system?

Me:  There’s not a whole lot I can do.  The first thing that needs to happen is society has got to actually value education.

Person:  We do.  How about the unions?  Wouldn’t you break up the unions?

Me:  The unions aren’t the primary problem.  When society actually treats education as a priority, then it starts paying greater dividends.

Person:  Sure.  But don’t you think we don’t need to spend so much money on education?

Me:  I can get coffee in a Starbucks drive-through six times before my computer from 1999 boots up.

Person:  But this tenure thing kills education right?

Me:  Tenured teachers can still be fired.

Person:  But it’s a pain. Actually, wouldn’t it be better if everyone was just homeschooled?

Me:  My point is made.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people don’t like to be held accountable for their own actions and value judgments.  But examples abound of societies lack of prioritizing learning; from the regular humping of Khan Academy to the continued degradation of school facilities. 

Credit recovery is a perfect example of not really valuing what kids learning.  Basically credit recovery is like it has always been, only districts really love it because it can help with bringing in funding.  Remember the original idea of summer school?  The making-up-credits thing?  Yeah, that’s expanded to things like Cyber High.  Now you can fail a semester and then make up the credits in a few weeks using a totally online format that teaches you absolutely nothing.  Oh, unless you live in Los Angeles, where you apparently can make up a semester’s worth of credits in just three days by transferring to a different school.

Oh, and I’m really hoping that Georgetown didn’t just enroll an incoming Senior from St. Ignatius in San Francisco.  Yes, that means that he hasn’t got his diploma yet.  But somehow it looks like a rising basketball star has managed to gain access into an “elite” academic institution; one that many of my students might give their right leg for the honor.  Come on Georgetown.  Seriously? 

So actually value education and you will see results.  If you decide not to you can break as many unions as you want while putting forth constant streams of standardized tests, and nothing will change.     

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wussification hits boys the hardest

Go read David Brooks’ column at the New York Times. 

Done?  Good.  Now tell me what you got out of that column.  If you are like most people you’ll look and say that the school system is helping to create a generation of boys that don’t get to be a part of the struggle that it is to be a boy.  You have the usual pattern of modern growth of man; disruptive child, insistence of mental problem, drug recommendation, withdrawal, rebellion, getting high at Burning Man, and eventually waking up next to some girl you met and married in Vegas that looks a little bit like Rue McClanahan from Golden Girls days.

I dare say that David Brooks doesn’t go far enough.  Whether or not society wants to admit it, school is a microcosm of the social mores and customs of society. 

“Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.

But this isn’t a school problem.  It’s a society problem!  We are so damn hypocritical in our culture when it comes to those Neanderthal values that we used to love until political correctness shoved those values into the deepest corner of the basement along with Mel Brooks’ “the sheriff is a n…” and Eddie Murphy’s stand-up tirade about gays.  See, most of us love Murphy’s stand-up and Blazing Saddles, but I see people get squeamish when you actually talk about it.  Like it’s wrong to enjoy the comedy.  Same with these new “values” that places on acceptable behavior.  If I told you that I love competition, military service, winning, and strict adherence to discipline, and that I was a teacher, I’d have half the community insisting that I was not a nurturing soul and would be pushing political values that would corrupt their precious child, a child that would some day probably create world peace.  Yet we actually value those things.  We watch and participate in competition all the time.  We honor those that defend us from harm.  We strive for our children to be the very best, and even push them to beat out other students to get into college.  And we like order, whether we want to admit it or not, discipline works.  But society has decided that these values are not as important as a calm child that can rationalize his thoughts at eight years old while doing multiplication tables and contemplating how he’s going to get into Stanford when he graduates high school. 

Until society stops the “college for all” push, I don’t see this trend going anywhere good.  I’m not saying that college should not be presented as an option to boys or that boys should not be steered in that general direction, but active boys are not a sign of the apocalypse.  They are not necessarily demented, disturbed, broken, or in any other way unnatural other than they are active children that might need a different outlet than sitting in multiple math classes to pass the standardized test.  Brooks mentioned the falling rates of recess for kids.  Ever wonder if recess did some good for active kids?  How about more PE for middle and high school kids?  There are so many problems we could address just by required more time actually moving.  How about opening up the options for kids to use their energy in a different skill set?  How about, God forbid, tracking kids into a system that might just better suit their talents and interests?

Or we can just watch the slow decline of boys into the academic realm of irrelevance.  

Sunday, July 08, 2012

20 Year Reunion. Nah.

I didn’t go to my Twenty Year High School Reunion this weekend.  Instead I took my basketball players to a tournament in Santa Rosa on Saturday, and then helped out the varsity with games in Windsor on Sunday.  It was a simple case of going forward and looking back, and I chose the first case.

I really think I didn’t miss much.  Those people I knew in high school that I wanted to stay in contact with, I stay in contact with.  That number isn’t much, and I find it quite entertaining when people I had little to do with in high school “friend” me on Facebook.  They open up a window into their lives that is sometimes depressing, often amusing, and makes me nod when I realize that little has really changed with some people since high school.  Nah, I don’t need to back into a time of my life that was blah enough.

That’s not to say I didn’t get a lot out of my high school years.  I had a fantastic group of friends, some excellent teachers and coaches, and I developed a love for basketball that has hopefully rubbed off on others.  I just wasn’t any kind of Mr. Social in high school and I definitely was not one of those “high school is supposed to be the best time of our life” kind of person.  To me that’s scary.  I cringe when I hear students say that I’m too hard on kids during the best time of their lives.  Here’s an announcement for those that think that 14-18 years old was the best time of your life; your life sucks.  Seriously, it is time for some investigation about how you became involved in a Molly Ringwald dream thus totally ignoring reality.  Nope, high school was just a step on a journey that hasn’t stopped yet.

And that journey involved basketball this weekend, again.