Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Probably insensitive and inappropriate, but I don't care...

It occurs to me that if someone wanted to take over the U.S. government in a coup, they would do well to wait for the next time a hurricane is headed for the east coast. (And if there's some big celebrity news as well - a death, someone winding up in rehab, some outrageous comment - all the better).

Yes, I know Irene was a big threat. Yes, it's tragic that people died, and it's unfortunate that some people are flooded out of their homes. But did they really need 24/7 coverage of it? I suppose this is the result of Katrina. I admit, I was kind of scared at the thought of what Irene might do...but now I wonder how much of that was the result of Weather Channel (and others) hyperbole.

(I will note that we have experienced something like 60 days straight of temperatures over 100 here. And we haven't had appreciable rain since May or thereabouts. And people have died here from the heat. But that's a less spectacular story, or perhaps people are bored with it now)

That's what I HATE about the news feel like you're being lied to. That things that don't affect you (see: celebrity news) directly are super-hyped. And things that are potentially important (impacts of things like taxes, health care law, some new regulations coming down the pike) are swept under the rug.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Four Day Week

This is something I've heard is happening, especially in some rural districts...schools are shifting to longer days for four days of the week, and then not having school on the fifth day (typically, Friday).

The stated reason is to save the districts money on things like transportation, heating, cooling, and electricity.

(However, I wonder about those last three - from what I've read, teachers are still told to treat that fifth day as a "prep day," and in some districts they provide "tutoring" - which may be code for "the parents complained so much about having to provide childcare on Fridays")

I don't know. I have mixed feelings about this. (My university does a four-day week in the summer, so I've experienced it, at least at the college level.

There are some good things:
1. You have more class time in a given day - you can spend more time doing certain things. For example, I have double-length labs in the summer, which means I can do bigger and better field trips.

2. It's possible students will forget less with a more-intensive schedule. I always liked taking summer classes because I felt like I really learned the stuff, because it was go-go-go all the time.

3. It does provide a bit of extra flexibility for the instructors...having Fridays off in the summer means that if I want to, I can do the grocery shopping or errands for the week on Friday morning, when the stores are less crowded. Or it's a lot easier to make doctor/dentist appointments when you know you have one entire day free.

There are also downsides:

1. For families with grade-school-age children, if both parents work (or if it's a single-parent household), the children wind up unsupervised for an entire weekday. Or the parents have to shell out for extra childcare. (Which I suspect is why some schools are talking about Friday "tutoring" sessions...and I have to admit, if I were a teacher? And I wasn't being paid for Fridays, but was told to come in and "tutor," I would not be very happy.)

2. It can be an exhausting schedule. I find summer teaching challenging because fitting all my prep and planning and ten hours of office hours into a four-day week means I have to put in longer days.

3. If they are trying to save electricity and cooling or heating, they may turn off climate control on Fridays. Or, as my campus does, midday Thursday. Which means, if you come in to work or "tutor" on Friday, it's gonna be warm in the summer or cold in the winter. (That's one thing that really bugs me about the four-day week. It's kind of miserable by Thursday afternoon, it's sweaty on Friday, and usually intolerable by Saturday...and if they forget to turn the a/c back on Monday morning...)

If it really does save a pile of money and/or if it really does improve the learning of children, then fine. But I admit I'm suspicious of how much money really gets saved. (And I wonder about the burden on families having to have to find someone to watch over the kids every Friday).

I wonder what anyone else involved with education thinks...I don't find having Fridays "off" in the summer benefits me all that greatly, I'm still busy all that day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

World. Changing. Too Fast.

1. I've already had several of my stats students asking me why the homeworks aren't available/designed to be submitted via BlackBoard.

Because I'm a dinosaur who likes seeing your calculations done out on paper, that's why. The answers aren't what's important here - the work is. Knowing that you can apply the tests correctly.

2. I had a would-be employer call me because a student put me down as a reference. I was all prepared to give background and details, but all they wanted were "dates of employment" and "would you re-hire the person?"

I realize a lot of places will ONLY give this material out. But, golly day, if you're someone's major'd think you'd be able to give a bit more information about them.

Some quick stuff

- Still enjoying my classes but still crazy busy. I forgot how much time and mental energy a from-scratch new prep (as opposed to a "reviewing and updating existing material") takes.

- It's still hot here, which affects my energy level, my tolerance of fellow humans (Seriously: I've wanted to punch at least one person in the nose every time I've gone to the grocery store lately), and my energy levels.

- I'm glad no one was hurt in yesterday's earthquake. I guess east coast and west coast geology must be very different, considering the great distances over which the earthquake was felt.

- I hope they can get the National Cathedral and Washington Monument repaired quickly and well.

- Best joke I heard to come out of it: Obama went on tv and said the cause of the earthquake was Bush's Fault.

- I hope everyone on the east coast stays safe from Irene...if evacuation looks prudent, get out. This could be a really big, really bad thing.

- My local news channel plays music - they try to find topical stuff - in the breaks. Today they played "Come on Eileen" before discussing the hurricane. This bugs me for several reasons:

1. The storm is IRENE, not EILEEN. And there is a perfectly good song - if one a few more decades old - about a woman named Irene.
2. We don't WANT the hurricane to come....we want it to go the opposite direction.
3. I'm gonna be singing that dumb song in my head all morning now. (Maybe I have to go listen to "Safety Dance" and let the earworms battle it out)

- I've begun putting my lunch in the shared food-fridge down the hall after hearing all the scare stories about "The lunch your child packs from home may be UNSAFE!!!" (which I kind of suspect could lead to a run-up of "OH, just have your child eat whatever the school provides...." Though I will say when I was a kid, I hated the cafeteria lunches. So I took my own. Usually peanut butter, which I guess is disallowed at some schools now. I would have been in trouble then.)

- Cold plain lowfat yogurt does taste slightly better than room-temperature plain lowfat yogurt. (Though as I said to one of my colleagues: "Technically, yogurt's already spoiled, so I'm not sure that putting it in the fridge does anything.")

- Not loving what's going on in politics right now. I have to say there's not a single presidential candidate right now I'd vote for without holding my nose more than a little. (Though I guess on the other side of the aisle, there are some calling for Hillary Clinton to challenge Obama next fall).

- I try to remind myself (in re the Maxine Waters outburst) that politics has always been ugly and people have always said nasty things, we just hear them more now. But it doesn't stop me from thinking: "We are in a 'cold' civil war. I wonder if it will escalate to a 'hot' one."

- Then again: I remind myself that I only control what I can control - how I teach, how I do my research, etc. And try to forget people saying nasty and dumb things.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The class that meets after mine is an upper-division class most of the pre-meds take. As I was picking up my stuff and preparing to leave, a couple of the women in that next class walked in, talking. One of them said to the other:

"I tell you: No going out the first couple weeks of class! You need to keep your mind on your studies, at least early on. You can wait to go drinking."

hahahahaha. Some of the students here are so wonderful.

Serious students, yay.

For the first time ever here, I'm teaching the bio-majors introductory class. (Normally I teach the non-majors intro class, but because of the clustermuck with the instructor last year, and our inability to find someone willing to teach for chump change (at an adjunct level), I wound up teaching it).

I don't have any non-majors classes this semester.

I'm blown away by my intro majors. They're so POLITE. They're so engaged. They ask questions. They give a crap. I've already had people e-mailing me with questions about stuff (in lots of cases, the non-majors students wouldn't ask, and then would complain that I "never told them" anything about whatever it is). The majors may demand more of me than the non-majors did, but if they THANK me after I help them (and they do), well, then I'm more than happy to keep doing it. (I would even if they didn't thank me, but how much more pleasant the task is when the person is pleasant about it.)

I figured it was going to be good when, on the first day, after running through the syllabus and everything, I said, "Okay, let's start on Chapter 1" and more than 3/4 of the class pulled out notebooks and pens to take notes. (A lot of these folks are potential pre-meds, and this is the "weeder" class....but the fact that they seem to be taking responsibility for learning impresses me. I also had a student ask me today if I "tested heavily on definitions" and I said yes, I did, and he said, "Cool, thanks.")

I think there are a lot of people in our culture who don't thoroughly grasp just how important those little words are - please, thank you, excuse me, and so on. I was raised to use them and I've noticed over the years that sometimes a grumpy shopclerk or waiter becomes a little friendlier when you use them with them. And I know I am more eager to help someone next time if they thanked me after the first time.

I know we shouldn't EXPECT those words, we should do good without being rewarded - but golly, it's nice to hear people say "thank you" when you help them. (And because I know this, I make a point of saying "please" and "thank you" to people myself.)

I hope the trend I'm seeing in my students this semester continues.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

here but busy

The new classes (so far) look fine. I'm not teaching non-majors this fall and it looks like that will be a big relief...I had forgotten how the non-majors could kind of suck a person's soul from them.

However, in my personal life, I'm dealing with a couple people who, partly because of thin-skinned-ness, up and dropped a bunch of responsibilities they were carrying (essentially, the "I'm taking my ball and going home" attitude - no attempt to work it out, no attempt to sit down with the people they accused of criticizing them unfairly). What this means is that some of the rest of us in this group have to shoulder still more responsibility. (Thanks, people, thanks a lot. I'll remember this if you ever call me "needing" anything...I will be "too busy" with my added responsibilities.)

Dang it, I swear, some days I think I'm the only adult in the room.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cursive writing.

One of the newspaper stories I read when I was up visiting my parents discussed cursive writing. (They still have a viable newspaper in their town, I don't, really - I let my subscription lapse because I was sick of it not showing up/showing up when I requested a "vacation hold"/finding it was six pages long with four of those pages being local sports/not having any of the Sunday sections any more)

A lot of school districts are choosing to drop the teaching of it. Apparently Indiana has either cut it from their list of required topics to learn, or has totally cut it out.

I am not sure it's a good idea to drop teaching cursive writing. The argument being made is that that time can be "better spent" teaching kids to "keyboard" (Ugh, I hate that usage of that word...I don't like it when nouns are made into verbs) instead.

I will say one other argument that could be made against cursive is that a lot of kids struggle with it. I HATED "penmanship" class when I was a kid. I don't write neatly. I have never written neatly. But I can read my own writing and most other people can read it as well. What frustrated me about "penmanship" was:

a. That you had to write exactly as the model alphabet, including that funky ugly capital Q that always looked like the number 2 to me. And if you found an easier or more efficient way to write, if it left out loops or flourishes, it was wrong, and had to be redone

b. Because my handwriting was messy, I got pulled for special "extra remedial work" in penmanship. You know what's worse than being known as a little brainiac egghead? Being known as a little brainiac egghead who still has to do remedial work in one area. It gave the kids who hated me (which seemed like most of them, some days) justification in calling me "retard."

(And an aside: I almost feel now like I should write that as "the r-word" or "r*****" - the way people do with the infamous n-word. But that word is such an ugly word. Actually, another topic for another time: how kids have (always, it seems) used words that serve to "cut individuals from the herd" as ways of demeaning things or people they don't like: "That's so retarded!" or "That's so gay!" And how ugly it is to call someone - or something - by those words. (Though really the only time I ever heard the n-word in my life was one black person using it jocularly with another. But even then it makes me cringe, all arguments of "but it's okay because we're 'reclaiming' the word and taking away its power" aside)

So I admit, if I had, in fourth or fifth grade or whenever, be told, "We are not going to focus on penmanship any more," I would have breathed a sigh of relief.

Then again, there were a number of arguments made in the article that tend to put me in the camp of being in favor of continuing to teach cursive.

One my mother brought up, and I think that makes sense: If the children don't know cursive, and they go on to work with old handwritten documents (e.g., they become a historian), or they have old letters or something from their family, reading those documents will be much harder if the person has no experience with cursive. (She may have thought of this because she was a history major before she became a biology major. And also because when she and my father took reading German in graduate school, they had to learn the old German script as well as the modern typefaces, and I remember her saying she found that challenging to do).

Another argument in favor of cursive: several of the teachers noted it helped the small-motor skills of the children improve. I think this was actually kind of the issue that gave me problems with handwriting, even though I could embroider and hand-sew and manipulate tiny beads and stuff...well, that, and the problem that I was impatient and didn't like having to slow down to write all the flourishes.

Another argument in favor of writing things by hand in general: you remember things you write better than things you type. I find that is true for me. It's another way of getting into the brain. Most people have some form of "muscle memory" and having written something often means you learn it better. (And you definitely learn something better if you write it as well as hear it, as opposed to only hearing it).

I'd also argue that it's still a meaningful skill. And why drop it? Why not, if more time is needed, drop something else? Sometimes I wonder what kids are learning in schools these days; we see so many students coming in who are poor at even basic math, or who can't write a well-reasoned paper. I haven't really looked at school curricula but I wonder if there's more emphasis on multiculturalism and recycling and feeling good about yourself and "get up and play at least an hour a day" and less emphasis on reading, math, writing, doing research, argumentation...I'm sure rhetoric is not taught in schools any more and perhaps it should be.

It just seems, I don't know, kind of cutting ourselves off from our past if we're going to replace handwriting with "keyboarding." (And: way to make a generation gap. I guess that means I will have to, in the future, print in block letters everything I write on the board, so I don't leave behind any students who didn't get familiar with cursive)

But a reason and an argument I had not thought of, but which I find kind of interesting, came up in the article.

Several teachers, and several parents, expressed dismay over the dropping of cursive writing because the children looked forward to learning it.

I don't remember really how I felt about learning cursive (we started in second or third grade), but it does seem plausible to me that some children would really look forward to it. It seems "grown up." It's how their parents write. It's a rite of passage. (I remember that it was a big, big deal when we were first allowed to use ink pens in class. Before that point, we could only use pencils. Ink pens were for "older kids" and being allowed to use one to write in class meant you were now more grown up). And I think it's wrong to take away something kids actually look forward to learning - there are so many other things that the fun seems to have been taken out of already. To me, that seems like almost the most compelling argument in favor of it - that a certain percentage of the children look forward to it, see it as a hallmark of being "more grown up," and seem to WANT to learn it.

At any rate, I guess I would say that I'd like to see cursive stay in the schools. (And in the district in the town where my parents live, they are keeping it, for now).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lucky, or if you prefer, blessed

I got to thinking about that again over this break: how incredibly, unbelievably fortunate I am to have the parents I do. To be born to and raised by the people I was.

I got to thinking about this because I went to church with them while I was visiting over break. The "new" assistant minister (he's also the Music Minister and has been so for a while, but he was recently promoted and got the pay raise) was speaking on "Love" and was using an illustration from a mission trip he went on, where groups were going to help people working with "at risk" youth in parts of cities where bad stuff goes down.

And one of the things he said struck me: he talked about how he was so afraid - and he really emphasized "so afraid" - for the future of these children. That he prayed that there would continue to be enough positive influences in their lives to steer them to the path of love and responsibility, and away from the path of hate and selfishness. And while he hoped that and prayed that, he still was afraid.

And it struck me: the choice of path was easy and clear for me. There was no deciding between the choices; taking the path of being a responsible person, and striving to be a loving person, seemed so obvious. And that's because of the parents I had, what they showed me with their lives.

My parents made a lot of sacrifices for my brother and me when we were growing up. My dad was a college prof and a low-level administrator, and my mother stayed home to care for us - so they weren't rolling in money. Yet I never remember really going "without," and in the cases where I didn't get what I thought I wanted (like designer jeans, they first became really really hot when I was in junior high, but my parents wisely would not spend $50 on a pair of jeans for a girl in the middle of a growth spurt, where they might be too short in a few months), it was probably actually better for me in the long run NOT to have that thing.

They sent me to a private high school (by the time my brother was of that age, we had moved, and the public high school in the town where they lived was far less antagonistic than the public high I would have attended had been). They helped us pay for college. They were always there to provide emotional support, to do things like buy a new pair of shoes for us when we were broke college students who had had our shoes resoled twice already, things like that.

I don't remember them ever taking a fancy, "couple only" vacation anywhere. We took family vacations; we went to visit relatives or we went to National Parks. Though knowing my parents, they probably enjoyed going to the Great Smoky Mountains or somewhere and hiking around than they would have enjoyed going to Aruba and lying on a beach.

There were other things, I'm sure, that were incredibly important and valuable to my brother and me that weren't really 'sacrifices' on their part so much. For example, I remember my mom saying that she was kind of sad when both my brother and I had gotten "too big" for her to read stories to us at night any more - that she had really enjoyed that. (Her reason for staying home with us: "I want to be a mother. I don't want to work outside the home and have my kids raised by someone else." I realize not everyone can, or even wants to, do that, but I'm really glad my mom made the choice she did.)

Also, things like the weekly trips to the library. Or going hiking on fall weekends in the Metroparks near us. Or letting my brother and me do stuff like take apart my dad's broken pocket watch so we could see what was inside it.

I forget sometimes that not all kids have the kind of childhood I did. I wish they could have - I wish that everyone grew up with the same sense of security and being loved and cared for that I had. Even when I started school and realized what jerks my peers could be sometimes, I still knew that I could go home at the end of the day, and my mom would be there, and she'd want to hear about my day, and if I were sad about something, she'd say something to make it better. Or I remember my dad telling me that the kids teased me because they were jealous of me, jealous because I was smart and good. It didn't really help me feel better about the teasing when it was happening, but it made me feel better to know that he was bothered that I was being teased in school.

So I do think of the kids the Associate Minister spoke of - and other kids in other places, who face the same problems and scary futures. And I do hope and pray that they will experience enough good influences to steer them well.