selenite0: (Homeschooling)
I wouldn't advocate dropping out of school to my kids, but this British rapper makes a solid case that the traditional school curriculum isn't much use to students. His list of subjects not taught would make a good set of high school classes. Some of them do have algebra as a prerequisite, but statistics is more useful to citizens than calculus. I'll be trying to teach the missing material to my children.
selenite0: (This is Terrible)
Walter Jon William's The Rift made me curious about the Mound Builders, a North American Indian civilization around 1100 AD. So when I saw 1491 by Charles Mann I snapped it up. It covers all the pre-Columbian societies of the Americas. It's full of fascinating stuff. The overwhelming impact of European diseases made it extremely difficult to estimate the original population size. The Medieval Climate Optimum was trashing Andean cities while improving European crops. And Squanto's story is much more of an adventure than the Pilgrims'.

Unfortunately, mixed in with all these wonderful new facts were occasional references to stuff I already knew. Lots of those references were wrong.

When describing the Spanish conquest of the Incas Mann mentioned that conquistador cavalry could have been beaten by Inca spearmen. Totally true. I've got enough books describing how pre-gunpowder infantry can defeat cavalry to fill a shelf of their own. But Mann's example to prove this is the Battle of Marathon. No way. Not only was the Persian army only 2-5% cavalry but it was the absence of the cavalry that triggered the Athenian attack.

Mann also talked up the fiber technology of the Incas by pointing out that some conquistadors laid aside their steel breastplates for native cloth armor. He implies the cloth would protect better against enemy attacks. Hardly. After winning against a force dozens of times their size without losing a single man the Spaniards likely thought the Incan chipped-stone weapons were less of a danger than heatstroke, or at least a mild enough danger to let comfort overrule security.

Another error was the description of carbon-14 dating. That was very odd considering the previous paragraph described it correctly. A typo? Or cutting and pasting an explanation without understanding it? At the very least it's evidence of carelessness.

Then there was the discussion of the Norte Chico civilization. Mann presented it as a rival of Sumer, making the Andes a co-equal cradle of civilization with Mesopotamia. But in 3000 BC Sumer had cities up to 24,000 people in size, while Caral had only 3000. It's not a counterpart of Sumer but of Catal Huyuk, which had 5-10,000 people in 7500 BC.

Mann also claimed the Norte Chico cities were unfortified. Let's look at one of their structures:

If you're leading a band of spearmen on a raid on there, which option would you pick?
1. Lead them 2 by 2 up the ramp while the defenders line the edge to shoot at you.
2. Climb up the side while the defenders drop rocks on you.
3. Say "heck with it" and go raid a little peasant village.

In fairness to Mann, "unfortified" could be the mistaken assessment of the archaeologists rather than the author. I've seen the same description of Catal Huyuk, which would be murder on a storming party.

What makes the errors bother me even more is the author's statement in the afterword about fixing errors from the first edition. If this stuff got through how bad was it before? It's normal for an author to inflate the importance of his topic but inflating the facts is bad. I don't mind Mann being a booster, and this book fills a major gap. The question is whether he goes too far for his facts to be trusted.

He certainly goes pretty far in his opinions. When discussing Aztec human sacrifice he equates it to the executions of criminals in Europe. Personally I find a huge moral difference between harshly punishing convicted criminals and hunting down innocents for the sole purpose of killing them horribly. Mann mourns the loss of the Aztec philosophers. These guys wrote about their existential angst over the impending end of the world and consequent nothingness. After all, someday they'd run out of neighbors to sacrifice and the gods would pull the plug. Somehow we've managed to produce goth and emo poets without those guys to build on, so I don't feel the loss. Crushing the Aztecs was the best thing the conquistadors ever did.

Mann wraps up the book by claiming the American tradition of liberty is derived from the Iroquois. In his telling every European colonist seems to be a devoted adherent of the feudal order. The Indians they meet did as they wished, led by chiefs who carefully avoided pissing off enough of the tribe to be overthrown. This was not new to Europe--it's how the Germanic tribes who overthrew the Roman Empire lived, and how the Celts conquered by the Romans lived.

In all these cases--Iroquois, German, and Celt--the tradition of liberty only existed in a low-population density society. It didn't survive as the tribe grew larger. From the Mississippians to Charlemagne free and easy chieftainships grew into monarchies and theocracies.

The United States managed to create sustainable personal liberty by drawing on the republican traditions of Athens, Roman, and Renaissance Italy. Mann tries to hand-wave that away. I have to wonder how much other hand-waving he's doing to inflate the historical importance of the Native American societies.

I want to like this book. It's full of fascinating information about people only mentioned in passing in my other books. But I can't trust it. So it can't be part of the home-schooling library.

EDIT: See comments for the author's response.

Hogfather

Dec. 29th, 2006 06:21 pm
selenite0: (tell me a story)
[livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly and I watched Hogfather last night, thanks to a friend who shall remain anonymous due to the legal status of downloading TV shows. She already squeed about it and I agree completely. But there's a few bits I want to comment on: For the spoiler-phobic ) I look forward to watching this every Christmas from now. And hopefully seeing more movies which treat books with as much respect as this one did. Though I think Hogfather was much easier to adapt than many would be.
selenite0: (Maggie and Jamie 4/1/05)
Dorothy Sayers on the importance of learning how to learn instead of just unconnected subjects:
We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spellbinder, we have the impudence to be astonished.
. . .
Wherever the matter for Dialectic is found, it is, of course, highly important that attention should be focused upon the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well-tuned argument, lest veneration should wholly die. Criticism must not be merely destructive; though at the same time both teacher and pupils must be ready to detect fallacy, slipshod reasoning, ambiguity, irrelevance, and redundancy, and to pounce upon them like rats.
. . .
Once again: the contents of the syllabus at this stage may be anything you like. The "subjectas" supply material; but they are all to be regarded as mere grist for the mental mill to work upon.
The last point is an important one. I don't think I'd pick Latin and Theology as foundation subjects. But the key thing is the importance of learning accurate reasoning and data-gathering abilities. With that our kids can pick up any bit of knowledge as the need arises.
selenite0: (Maggie and Jamie 4/1/05)
An article on the high cost of college suggests an alternative:

There are thousands of under-employed Ph.D.s in America who could be paid to offer college-level courses in your living room. If 10 students banded together and put up $10,000 each . . . they could hire two high-end intellectuals, pay them $50,000 each and get personal instruction.
This sounds like what I've heard of the old Oxford/Cambridge education. Could work very well for learning the liberal arts, and even sciences such as mathematics or economics that don't require much equipment. Engineering and biology would still need an institutional set-up.

The big problem would be that you'd get a good education and not come out with an accredited degree, so employers would be wary of you. There might be good synergy with the online colleges. Have tutors in person under the aegis of an online school. The school does final exams and awards the degree, but you don't have the problems of getting your schooling through an Ethernet port.
selenite0: (Jamie Aug 05)
Niven's 16th Law: There is no cause so right that one cannot find a fool following it.

A few days ago I wrote about the troubles boys are having getting a good education in public school. Today [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly pointed me at a post about some total idiot suing a school and demanding "the school system should compensate boys for the discrimination by boosting their grades retroactively." Argh.

Okay, let me restate this. The problem is that boys are not learning what they need to. Inflating grades doesn't make them more knowledgable, it just postpones dealing with the problem to a worse time (further discussion of affirmative action should be on my other journal). I want to work toward getting a better education for boys, not a better transcript. There's no point in helping them flunk out of a better class of college.

There was a suggestion in there I could go for--making sports eligible for credit. Most are complicated enough that you can do a whole class in them. But I'd want it to be rigorous, not just handing out credit to everyone who plays. This means forcing coaches to make speeches like this:

"Biff, you're a great tackle. I want you on the team. I'll start you every game. But you can't get a pass to less than ten yards from the receiver. Plus you bombed on the final last year. C'mon, the essay question was 'When is a toss sweep better than a cross toss?' and you left it blank. Please don't take football for credit this year. I don't want to flunk you again."
selenite0: (Jamie Aug 05)
The New Republic has an article on boys falling behind in school. (Link to part 2)

Recommended solutions? Keeping on the boys to make them turn homework in on time, and giving them comics to read. Sounds good to me.

A teacher writes about the book Raising Cain and muses on how competitive behavoir in boys can produce good results.
selenite0: (Beware the Engineer)
Engineering Education: A New Hope

The WSJ has a great article today on Olin College of Engineering. This is a from-scratch attempt to develop a new approach to engineering education. I think they're off to a great start. Integrating the theory with hands-on projects should be a much better way to learn than the pure lectures I got. There's also a big emphasis on entrepreneurship and self-initiated projects. And I can't complain about lots of the faculty being from MIT.

This is very exciting for me--I don't usually blow through a 100-page course catalogue for the fun of it. It's not perfect, of course. They're still too new to have much depth in any one subject, and may never grow large enough to have that much. Formal math is being pushed up front, which seems to be driven more by the accreditation agency than actual needs (though they do seem to concentrate on useful math rather than the more esoteric methods). It doesn't have an "engineering communications" class as such but there's a bunch of team projects that probably include that. Hopefully they will touch on some of Tufte's work.

Overall it looks like those students will get a better foundation than I got. I'd strongly recommend it to anyone looking to major in engineering.

Full WSJ Article )
selenite0: (Beware the Engineer)
[livejournal.com profile] xinef asked "what do you recommend that a student, now in Grade 10 and definitely interested in a career in engineering, should do?" That's a broad question, so my answer got long enough to become a separate post.

First off, "a career in engineering" includes a lot of possibilities. You should decide what kind of engineering you're looking for. Some of the specific choices:

Hands-on vs. theory: some engineers go out into the field or machine shop and get dirty, some sit in a cubicle and do viewgraphs.

Cutting edge vs. practical: there's a lot of really "cool" technical work out there, but most of it is done on government contracts (with annoying restrictions and paperwork) or start-ups (long hours, high risk). Either way, you have a good chance of working your heart out on something that winds up in the trash (BTDT). But it's lots of fun while it lasts. Someone working on more practical projects (the next generation of lawn mowers or scanners) will have a tangible accomplishment to point to.

Large vs. small projects: I've mostly worked on huge government contracts with hundreds or thousands of engineers on them. You have a big goal to look at, but a lot of overhead to coordinate them all. Small projects are usually less ambitious but you'll have more chance to have a personal impact.

Field: There's aerospace, mechanical, civil, software, materials, etc. etc. engineers. Each have their tradeoffs. If you don't have your heart set on one consider if you want to avoid the government (aerospace is mostly gov't) or have lots of flexibility in where you live (civil and mechanical engineers are everywhere, other fields less so).

[Granted, that's a nasty pile of decisions to throw at a 10th grader. Most of your classmates probably have no clue what they want to aim for. But any decisions on the above you can make will help with the next section.]

Picking a school: Rule 1. Avoid Enormous State University at all costs. If that's the only school that will take you, try community college or an apprenticeship.

MIT and Caltech will give you chances you won't get elsewhere, but they're heavy toward the theory/research end. There are chances to get very hands-on there but you have to go get them, it's not a requirement. If you want to get into cutting-edge research they'll give you the best start. If you have a field of engineering you want to concentrate in, make sure they'll support that--they're deep but have gaps in what they cover. They're also hard to get into, so don't set your heart on them, keep a backup plan.

Look for small schools, especially ones with an "Engineering Technology" program. Private is probably better than public, but size matters more. ET can be more what the old-time practical engineering education is, depending on where you go. Research schools before applying. Look for the average class size and whether the faculty actually teaches or spends all their time preparing publications. Troll the web, find student's opinions of their classes and professors. Every school will have some bad teachers, don't put too much weight on one bad review. Look for the good reviews. Try to find a match to the type of engineer you want to be. Unless you want to be in the labs, avoid research universities, they tend to get rid of anyone actually good at teaching. The joke at MIT was that the response of a professor getting the Baker Award for best teaching was to scream in horror since he'd never get tenure.

Even a good school will miss out on some stuff a working engineer needs. You can fill in some of the gaps with books:

Visual Explanations - how to communicate. All of Tufte's books are great, but this one includes the actual slides the Thiokol engineers showed NASA before the Challenger launch. That should be mandatory reading for all engineers.

Engineering and the Mind's Eye covers the history of the profession, how engineers work in real life, and some of the education issues I've been complaining about.

There's a bunch of books out there with stories of engineering disasters. Most of them are field-specific: Why Buildings Fall Down for civil engineering, Software Runaways for software. I have some more general collections, which I'll dig out and post the links for when time permits. The case studies will point out mistakes you might make more effectively than a standards document.

Other things . . . Try to find out about a professor before taking an elective. Not always possible, but a class on a boring topic from a good teacher is better than one on a good topic with a lousy teacher. Try for classes that will have you do experiments or papers rather than just taking tests. Together with any outside the classroom work you do this can be the basis of a portfolio to show employers what you can do.

Lastly, take care of yourself. A bad grade will be averaged out over the degree, and after a few years in the workforce nobody cares about your GPA. Get some sleep. Have a life. And good luck.
selenite0: (Beware the Engineer)
As a counterpoint to the previous lament about the lack of American engineering students, Tech Central Station printed someone's description of being an engineering student. High demands, incompetent teaching, huge classes. Yeah, that probably drives a lot of good would-be engineers out of the profession. I was lucky that I went to a small school where the professors teach instead to a huge one where they never talk to undergrads. The feedback on the article was a mix of "me, too" and "that's normal, suck it up, crybaby." The latter pissed me off enough that I posted this:

It's amazing how so many working engineers tolerate a level of incompetence in teaching that they would consider criminally negligent in a co-worker. If good material is ground up and spat out by a machine tool, that's a problem to be fixed, not a standard cost of doing business.

One thing I'd like to change in engineering education is changing the focus from easy to grade formal math and analysis (thermodynamics, aerodynamics, advanced stress calculation) toward dealing with the fuzzier parts of the job. Figuring out requirements, designing something that meets them, and testing whether it does the job right once built is what engineers spend most of their time doing. Damn few engineers do calculus on the job.


The creeping increase in math-intensive required courses has been making engineering degrees harder to get and driving out useful material (design, drafting, communication skills) that don't have the same calculus-driven prestige. Unfortunately that's what we use on the job the most, not calculus. This trend has been going on for a long time. Hopefully we can turn it back before it destroys the profession. Or maybe we'll just have to create start-ups that train their own engineers through apprenticeships, bypassing the accredited universities completely.
selenite0: (couple)
Yesterday was my last day teaching UU Sunday school. I'd volunteered to cover the "helping others" unit. The curriculum material got tossed immediately. Have two students hold a third in their arms so they can understand what it's like to be oppressed? They're middleschoolers. They understand oppression. From both sides in a few cases. The prepared lecture was heavy on "Some people and countries are richer than others. This is a Bad Thing and should be stopped." I pulled together some appropriate parables and other Bible references with help from [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly and made up a rough outline to guide me. Only had three students show up, usually it's more than a dozen, but it made for a more intimate discussion.

I started with the current church charity goal, the Heifer Project, to illustrate how you can't just help people at random, it has to be useful. The boys came up with what a family had to have to make use of the heifer--fodder, land, knowledge of what the animal needs, and enough healthy people to do the labor to take care of it. I also pointed out that they needed to be secure in their ownership of the heifer or there'd be no incentive to work hard. From there we went to a comparison of poverty in India and America, how Bill Gates became the richest man in the world ("Is that fair?" "No!" they all said. Good UU kids.), what charities he's supporting, how North America went from much poorer than India a thousand years ago to much richer now, and the moral significance of giving charity proportional to your resources. I don't know how much of it took, but I mostly held their attention and got across the points I wanted to make--charity has to be useful, not just for show, hard work has to be rewarded, and wealth is created, not just redistributed.

Then I let my fellow teacher and the RE director know I was quitting. It's not just the teaching, though trying to work with that curriculum is frustrating and I hate teaching conscripts. Usually I'm teaching professionals who want to drag as much information as possible out of me. I haven't gotten political flack at the church though that's mostly from keeping a low profile. The negatives haven't been as bad as I'd feared but that's just rubbing in the lack of positives. There's not much interest in spirituality at this church. Sometimes even worse is the lack of interest in doing things well. The classic example is whenever a gospel song comes up as a hymn. Most of the congregation will start clapping, whether they have any sense of rhythm or not, so the song's so badly screwed up that it's painful for [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly to listen to it. Other parts of the service tend to be much more "well, I'm here to check this box" than "done well for the Glory of God." One of the things we wanted from joining the church was to have a source of guidance for our kids, figuring we'd have an easier time countering the PC junk here than a theology we don't agree with. But if they're going to teach "it doesn't matter if you do a good job or not, just do something and we'll all praise you" I don't want them inflicting that on our kids. Things worth doing are worth doing well, gorammit.

Not that we're swearing to never darken their door again, we're just looking for other options. Well, [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly is looking for options while I watch the kids. But sometimes it seems like we won't fit in anywhere. Sigh.

Speaking of doing things well--we went to see The Incredibles last night. Whee. Great stuff. I loved it. A bit intense for Maggie I think but she didn't complain. There was one moment that truly horrified me--the wide shot of Bob's cubicle farm spreading horizon to horizon. My windowless matrix is about the same except they use a slightly lighter shade of grey. Or maybe that's the lighting. Yeah, I felt for him wanting to get out of there.

Great movie.

Oh, they had the new Star Wars trailer. "Yes . . . I can feel the nerd rising inside you." I want to see it . . . I've actually skipped #2 up to now even though the glimpses I've had of the battle scenes looked cool. But the battle scenes in this one I think I want to see on the big screen.
selenite0: (Default)
When I was asked to teach the middle-schoolers I went through the middle-school curriculum to see if there were any big ideological conflicts that would keep me from presenting the material. Turns out I should've been looking for pedagogical conflicts. My current theory for dealing with middle schoolers is to keep the material coming and not leave any "dead air", because they'll fill that with their own chatter. So with my turn as lead teacher coming up I sat down with the book to look over the material and see how much I needed to add. Turns out the plan was:

1. kids work on arts & crafts project from last week
2. teacher briefly mentions that Judaism is a religion
3. kids split into three groups with handouts, each do a little craft project, and then brief the contents of their handouts to the other two groups.
4. watch 8 minute video

So I was only supposed to talk for about 5% of the class period. Talk about giving the kids room to run wild. So the handout material became lecture. Turned out the other teacher for the day had prepared some stuff to cover part of it so I didn't have to do the whole thing.

The project (making a village diorama) went reasonably well. Only one major spill, decent painting, no huge arguments. Most of the discussion was about "Here's where we'll put the pirate fort!" and such. So I started the lecture period with a digression on pirates in the time of Jesus (summary: the Romans killed them). To illustrate how Judaism is different from other religions I polled them for what kind of missionaries they'd had knocking on their doors. One student had run into Jews for Jesus but nobody had tried to make them convert to Judaism. In the overview of the religion I stressed the ten commandments, trying to show how these people had stayed distinct from their neighbors because they followed a rigid set of laws. It went reasonably well, I think I got most of the message across. Keeping the momentum of the lecture going kept them from doing much chattering or fooling around.

But they've clearly run into teachers doing that before. I was trying to get them involved by asking questions about the material and having them translate the verses of the KJV into colloquial terms, as well as taking questions from them. The problem I ran into was students tossing out "questions" that were slow, meandering speeches that went off topic and left dead air for other kids to start talking into. I wound up having to shut some down while they were still going on and not take a lot of questions. It went better than some of the earlier sessions but I like to get the class interested in the material instead of just quietly tolerating it. That might be hopeless. They didn't ask to be here and they didn't ask to hear the lecture, so even if they might've signed up for it as an elective they're not going to get enthusiastic for the mandatory class. It takes the fun out of teaching, normally if I'm lecturing it's to an audience that wants to know about this stuff. I'll have to see how the rest of the year goes but right now I don't think I'd sign up for another stint.
selenite0: (karl and maggie)
It's been a wonderful weekend.

Yesterday Laura and I had our first real date (just the two of us, no kids at all) for the first time in more than two years. After a bit of sturm and drang over "how dare we abandon our precious darlings to seek our own selfish pleasure?" we dropped the kids off at the babysitter's house and went to the movies. Almost missed it because I misread the schedule. Turns out the Ridgmar Mall theatre and the Ridgmar Tavern theature aren't the same thing, and the mall was showing the movie 15 minutes earlier, so when we got there we'd already missed the beginning. I'd looked at the online map and thought "Oh, they always put the star for mall stores on one of the perimeter roads" and ignored it. Now I had five minutes to remember where it was, get there, and get into a seat. Turned out to be on the opposite diagonal corner of the mall. We missed part of a preview. Not too bad.

So we saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Lots of fun. Lots of ridiculous laws of physics violations. Laura's heard me rant about various engineering stuff so much she could do the MST3K for me in parts. But I liked it. I just want the sequel to be "Frankie and Dex Save the World" so we don't have to put up with the die-bickering couple any more. I mean, sheesh, R2-D2 could fix stuff and he was a better conversationalist.

Then we had a nice dinner talking about the good and bad parts of the movie, speculating about weird tangents ("So--is Dex a castrato Spark?") and discussing the real-world history of the period. No talking about children or work. I wasn't even sure we could do that any more. We even had dessert. And Laura indulged me on a whim. Afterwards we just sat in the van for a while until we had to go pick up the kids.

Whee. Actual couple time. I could get used to this. There is the little problem that the babysitter cost more than dinner and the movie put together, but we can do it again sometime.

Today I helped teach Sunday school again. It was my turn to assist one of the others. Fortunately for her we only had five students show instead of the over a dozen we had last week. It went pretty well. With that small a class we could give them all enough attention to keep them from acting up.

Now I'm overseeing Brendan's science homework and cleaning the hot tub. He's making a model see-saw from cardboard and blocks, with a lot of supervision. The tub was very overdue for this drain and fill. I didn't want to reuse the old filter after Jamie was born in the tub. I figured it would keep some of the organics forever, so there was no use trying to clean it. The local dealer for softubs turns out to be a myth, so I couldn't get a new one and running it without one was, um, only a temporary measure. So I finally found a mail-order dealer and got the parts I needed, and it should be ready to use in a couple of days. Not that we'll have much time for it the weekend of the Fencon.

The rest of the day is going to be Fencon prep. Laura's been working full-time on that. That's going to be a fun time too.
selenite0: (karl and maggie)
Yesterday was the first religious education class of the school year. We've got over a dozen middle schoolers in the class. So I was afraid of getting chaos. It wasn't that bad, though. Other than a constant level of background chatter they were reasonably well behaved, and I didn't have to repeat corrections more than once (the other teachers left enforcing discipline to me). The "get acquainted" session two weeks ago was worse, but rearranging the furniture to keep everyone facing the teachers helped a lot.

We started by brainstorming our classroom "covenant". This is a UU practice--we have the kids come up with the rules to live by and write them down so they feel more obligation to follow them. I'm sure that can work fine with any group that wants to have a standard of good behavior. But that didn't describe all of our students. We've got a lot of cut-ups who viewed this as chance to mess with the teachers. After they had their fun for a while we put that aside "to be written up formally" and went on to the next activity.

It's not that these kids are evil or damaged. Brendan's autism drives me nuts at times with his random noises and comic book recitals, but that's something he has a hard time trying to not do. The student who was the biggest problem I know because he's the son of a friend of ours. I had a run-in with him last year when Laura and I were brought in to show Jamie to a sex-ed class. While the girls clustered around the baby the boys faded to the back and started fooling around. In this case, taking out a lighter and a candle and getting a fire going. When I had a chance I went over and just took it from them. No dramatic displays, just taking an action and making it clear that he didn't get to appeal. He got it back afterwards, but the distraction in class stopped.

With that as background I kept on eye on him in the previous session and disappeared the lighter as soon as he pulled it out. He learns quick. Yesterday he and his buds were playing Magic:TG while waiting for class to start. When I told them to put it away they went back in the box and didn't get touched again. Lesson learned. But watching how well he learns drives something home to me. This kid has learned that showing off to the rest of the class by being an obnoxious clown to the teacher and other students is a successful strategy with no chance of punishment. And he's taking full advantage of that knowledge.

As do a lot of the others. One of the teachers is a long time member of the church who's a public school teacher in her day job, so the rest of us were deferring to her as the lead teacher. But I don't think she's taught these grades. When we were wrapping up the snack time to go into the final segment she went up to the whiteboard and I hushed the class. Then she stood there waiting for the last bits of chatter to die out. Which, of course, didn't happen. So the conversations expanded into the vacuum while she stood there not doing anything. Finally one of the other teachers hushed them again and got her started. At this point I figured there was nothing that a student could do to get her to chastise him.

The final segment was the lead-in to our topic for the year--studying the life of Jesus of Nazareth. To get them thinking we asked the kids to brainstorm about what they already knew about him. We got a lot of stuff, much of which would horrify a theologian but not bad for thirteen year olds. Then the problem child I discussed above spoke up. He wanted to make a real point, that Jesus' conception happened when Mary wasn't married. The word he used to express this was "bastard." Then I saw our teacher come down on him, because that is a Bad Word used to Denigrate People. So one of the other students offered "illegitimate" as an alternative, and she said that was better but people were trying to avoid it because that had also acquired negative connotations. Well, yeah--lots of people have a negative attitude about the situation and whatever word you use to describe it will get those negative connotations. But we moved on from the PC vocabulary lesson and went back to our topic. It was a reasonably successful brainstorming session.

The worst part of the class was realizing that one of our better students--smart and well-behaved--was crying. I don't know when it started, probably when I was running an errand out of the room, there were several of those for chairs and supplies. But she was crying and I couldn't figure out a damn thing to do about it. Really makes me feel useless.

So I think the whole thing is a great argument for homeschooling. All the @#$% that was going on was behavior that was trained in school and the kids were acting that way as their routine. I can see two ways out of the trap: one, have the kids be actually interested in the subject being taught. Which will never happen when they're dumped into a room for storage, even if they'd want to know about this under other circumstances. Two, set a standard of behavior and hold them to it. That takes some training for the teachers, but the important part is the back-up that the school AND PARENTS provide for the teachers. Undercutting the teachers is just teaching the kids you can ignore any consequence from disobeying the teacher.

Right now I'm committed to teach the whole school year. I'm going to stick it out unless we give up on the church entirely (i.e., can't handle the political frenzy). But it'll have to be a lot better than this to have me teaching another year.
selenite0: (Default)
Our church has asked me to be one of the Religious Education teachers for this year. For the middle school class. So this may be more a matter of my demonstrated willingness to put a testosterone-crazed 13-year old in his place than any teaching aptitude I may have.

Not that I think I'd be a bad teacher, I enjoy teaching. But I'd have to stick to the Unitarian Universalist curriculum for the age group. This Sunday I had a chance to sit down and go through the teacher's manual (despite the efforts of another parent who felt the need to tell me her life story). Which had a surprise for me.

It's something that would only happen at a UU church--a pagan gets to teach Jesus's life story to the kids.

Not that I have a problem with teaching that, there's a lot of good things in the gospels and it's important cultural background. The main worry I had was that there'd be a lot of PC platitudes driving me up the wall. There was actually only one lesson that I had a problem with. The stories of the Young Rich Man ("Sell all that you own and give it to the poor, then follow me" said Jesus) and the Widow's Mite (a small contribution from the poor is a greater sacrifice than a large one from the rich) are used to kick off a discussion of wealth and poverty. The gist is that some people and nations have lots of money, others don't, and the rich should give lots of money to the poor.

My objection to that is not that we shouldn't help the poor but that it creates this image of wealth just being randomly distributed among nations, so fairness demands that the lucky ones share. In reality rich nations such as America got that way with lots of work from many people and the social fabric needed to let them be productive. Most of the third world has lots of natural resources but anyone trying to do something useful with them will have a corrupt government or bandits stealing whatever they produce. That's what keeps them poor. So just parachuting in bundles of cash would help the thieves, not the poor. The same dynamics apply at home--three generations of hard work and investment produces a very rich family. If the same people had dropped all their spare cash on booze and card games they'd be dirt poor. Just handing over cash won't make lives better, it's a lot more complicated than that.

Fortunately Jesus recognized that. When Laurie (the RE director) saw me after the service she asked if I still wanted to be a teacher. I said "I'd want to tell them the Parable of the Talents." "Sure," she said. So I'll be teaching Unitarian Sunday school.
selenite0: (Default)
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/14/technology/circuits/14peer.html (free registration required) describes writing students learning from feedback from their classmates. They post their essays online or circulate them some other way, get feedback from their classmates (oh, and maybe the teacher) and then rewrite it until it's good enough. The biggest problem they have is that a 50-minute class period isn't enough time to do a good job.

I think this might be a really good tool for homeschoolers--they could set up mailing lists or even some type of LJ community and trade feedback. The teachers might be unhappy, though.

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