Saturday, March 19, 2016

Mindless automatons, well-prepared for thoughtless obedience

Patrick Deneen, Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame writes this article.  Comments at the bottom of it are pretty illuminating as well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Common Core Kills Innovation, Tortures Students

Because it's a government thing.  And government is the WORST at deciding what's best for people.

When people innovate, they find better ways of serving people.  That's just as true in education as it is in business.

Today I spoke with a parent who was searching for 'a good old math text' she could use, because everything she could find was labeled 'Meets Common Core standards'.  The content of these was making her understandably crazy, because she couldn't follow the explanations required by Common Core.  Trying to find one not labeled for Common Core is almost impossible.

Under Common Core, teachers open a book that tells them what the student should be doing today.  There's no innovation.  There's just a recipe.  Add drill, shake, and bake.  It doesn't matter if the product turns out poorly, the recipe book says to move onto the next task.  How do you take yeast that hasn't proofed well and use it to make bread?  It doesn't matter.  The bread is due for the oven at a specified time, and in it shall go, with or without yeast.

Stacie Starr, an Ohio teacher, describes her dissatisfaction in this article.

It's not just that it's one-size-fits-all, which usually doesn't fit anyone very well.  Common Core is like one of those medical quick-loss diets where the only thing consumed is a nutritional liquid concocted in a lab.  It will barely sustain you.  It's boring, dreary, and tasteless.  It's also developmentally inappropriate, asking children to do things that are beyond their cognitive development.

The prescription of Common Core has killed educational innovation.  Students are people, and no two are alike.  But the ugliest part about Common Core is that innovation isn't allowed.  It shall be Common Core or nothing at all.  Parents who are looking for supplemental materials to try and repair the damage are finding it impossible.  A book titled Math, the Old-Fashioned Way might be a best-seller.

There are people not directly associated with a classroom who have a wealth of educational ideas to offer.  Some have years of classroom experience, are fabulous with kids and people, and clearly know what they're doing.  But Common Core has pinched them off, curtailed their livelihoods, and excluded them from the educational setting.  "Sorry, if it doesn't meet Common Core standards, we can't use it.  We don't have time.  We're too busy practicing for Common Core tests."

It isn't just schools who recite this.  I hear this from parents who are unwilling to step off the Common Core conveyor belt for fear their child will be left hopelessly behind.  If, as a tutor, I can offer repair of the math phobia but not the Common Core model of doing things, then my services may be rejected.

Understanding the subject matter isn't the goal anymore.  Allowing oneself to be conformed to a strange and unforgiving standard is a psychological technique used to convince people they aren't smart enough to stand up for themselves.  The teacher, who should be the one who rejoices in opening reluctant brains becomes the deliverer of torture, tightening thumbscrews while saying, "Hold still, honey, this is going to hurt, but it will be good for you."  It only teaches people to put up with pain while those in charge stick it to them again.  It kills innovation in the student, too.

Yup, this has all the earmarks of a great government program.  More teachers should stop putting up with it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why I'm now totally disassociated from public education.

I taught mathematics at the local community college from September, 1997 to August, 2014, usually two 5-credit classes per term.  I never wished to become full-time at the CC, as my work with homeschoolers at ZLO was actually much more interesting.  The job at the CC funded my joy at ZLO.  Sometimes ZLO was lucrative.  Mostly it has been an education in itself.

I've enjoyed being part of the community college environment.  The CCs, probably throughout the country, are the institutions of second chances.  Folks who have never done well in school often come back to education later in life when their cognitive maturity is better, and they have a purpose and a plan.  Many find they can now excel.  For some, rocket science opens to the student who failed high school algebra more than once.

Pressures to change and conform to moving-target standards
Until recently the focus of the CCs has been to turn students into 4-year university material, or to provide two years of college at a lower cost.  We look down the road, and try to match student behaviors to expectations they will have at those 4-year universities.  But there has been increasing pressure on the CCs by the K-12 public school system to align standards so that there is a less abrupt transition to college by high school graduates.  One such program is called the Transition Mathematics Project (TMP).  K-12 standards are a moving target!  The CCs have placement testing so that we can put a student where s/he will be able to perform within our system, which looks forward to the math required of these students as their college career progresses.  About 2/3rds of the students enrolled in math at the CC are in classes under the college level.  But it's what we do!  We get students ready for college.  I find the 'standards' tug-of-war a distraction.  It's not about finding ways to do what we do, but better.

Change for the sake of change (but really for money)
Some years back the Curriculum Committee at our CC came to the math department to point out that barely 25% of students who begin math at Math 94 (1-2-3 math) or Math 97 (first half of high school algebra) ever make it to a college level (over Math 100) math course.  There was much discussion within the department about why that was happening.  The consensus was that students in those low-level math classes lacked good-student skills.  We had some discussion about incorporating study skills into those courses, but the end result was a proposal to up-end the order of curriculum delivery, the path through mathematics, as though that would somehow create the change we needed in students to cause them to succeed.

The department chooses a book the whole department will use for the courses with multiple sections offered.  This helps to smooth out differences between instructors and saves students text costs when they repeat a course with a different instructor or take the subsequent course from the next section of the same text.  But there was no book to match our new path.  There was some discussion about writing our own book, but that idea was quickly abandoned when there was no money in it.  In the end, a new book was chosen and some supplements written, rather on the fly.  But the point of all this is that a change was made without any research at all about whether the change would achieve our intended result of getting more students farther down the road.  No pilot program.  No data collection, except for noting how many more students got through or beyond.  I believe the college got money for simply showing we were trying to make a change!

As an instructor, I had to shelve materials I had spent nearly two decades developing, and begin as though I were a new instructor.  I threw out presentations, supplemental materials, chapter reviews, and tests, because nothing matched up.  I found I disliked the new texts chosen.  Some parts clearly had been re-worked from the first edition and somewhat refined.  Some parts were not.  We had previously used other texts that were of much better quality, so I knew those existed.  I found I simply didn't have the time to prepare the courses I loved to teach, to a standard I thought worthy of the people who were shelling out hard-earned money to try to make an improvement in their lives.

Institutions of higher learning or institutions of higher nonsense?
I had a student in a math class the last term I was at the CC who was concurrently enrolled in a humanities class.  She mentioned one day that the instructor assigned students to go to the older buildings in town and lay hands on them to hear their story and feel their age.  When they got back to class the instructor asked if anyone had thought to taste the buildings.  While this is certainly not universal, this is the kind of nonsense towards which higher education is leaning.

There are more and more requirements towards CC graduation that include 'diversity' and 'sustainability'.  I got a request in email that wanted to know how I was incorporating these ideas in my math classes.  I refused to take the survey, even though they acknowledged that math classes typically don't lean towards these ideas.  But there was some insistence on the part of the college that everyone take that survey.  I felt as though the results could easily be used against me for not conforming to these expectations.  I'm pretty sure the math placement tests don't have either of these concepts on them.

Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing.
Another curious email I received during my final quarters at the CC invited faculty and staff of color to join a group to discuss issues that affect people of color.  You can see my photo on this page.  I flatly had no idea how to respond to that email.  I decided I did not want to know if I could join.  But privately I decided that the 'diversity' issue and 'inclusion' were in separate categories at my CC.

Should I send my child to the CC while in high school?
One of the things that the CCs do is handle Running Start students.  In Washington State, the Running Start program is a way for well-prepared high schoolers to take courses at the CC that can apply both to high school graduation credit and college credit, saving the student a considerable amount of college expenses.  I have several horror stories about the demands placed on 16 year olds, to examine some very adult ideas, including pornography.  Again, among CC instructors, the disrespect for the age of these younger students is not universal.  But parents need to understand that the CC is a very adult environment.  Pick and choose the instructors who will be in front of your kids.  Compare notes with other parents.  Collect notes for yourself on instructors who will be appropriate with your child.  And remember, college is for ADULTS!  There are tough ideas that get rolled around there.  Your child's life experience may simply not be up to participating on that level.  Yet.

So, unhappy with the direction of the CC, unhappy with the forces moving curriculum within my department, and especially unhappy with not being able to deliver a class to my own high standards, I  decided to end my tenure with the CC.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Migrating from public to homeschooling

Click here to read how an Oklahoma mom went from "Of course my kids will be public-school educated" to "We're homeschooling now."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why do I teach at Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities? (ZLO)

Really, I should be asking why I don't teach in a K-12 setting anymore.

1.  It's the people.  The homeschoolers we attract are amazing, wonderful people.  These are parents who are deeply invested in their kids, who love being with their kids.  The world sees that as parents living through their children and calls it a mental aberration and will tell us that we need to get a life so the kids can have their own lives.  But the attitude that kids need to be raised by daycare and school and not the parents is promoted by people who either run those operations or by parents who  resent the impact that kids have had on their lives.  Dropping a kid off at daycare isn't giving the kid a life, it's just parking the child.

The gospel of Christ turns people outward, to develop relationships with other people.  Jesus treasured everyone and taught us to do the same.  He specifically named the children as models for members of his kingdom.  The people at ZLO are people I'd like to find in heaven.  They open their hearts and resources to needs, and they show the world what the Kingdom of God looks like.

People who are willing to sacrifice their own desires for their kids raise people who are willing to sacrifice.  The kids are self-confident, willing to help, willing to try unusual activities.  Because they don't have to pursue 25 hours of school each week these families have time to learn new pursuits as a family.  Their broad experience means they have rich experiences to share.

2.  The setting is 75 minute classes with ten or fewer children meeting once or twice weekly.  Are you kidding?  As a former public school teacher, this is like I've died and gone to heaven!  Yes!  I can accomplish the same amount of curriculum in 2.5 hours per week.  The small classes lets me get to know these kids.  I bust my rear more for that than I ever did for a class of 35.

3.  Truth is what we seek.  This week I listened to a college math student tell of a humanities instructor who assigned students to go touch some of the older buildings in town, so that students could feel the story the building had to tell.  After their field trip the instructor asked if anyone had tasted the building.  Students are like the population of citizens in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.  In trying to be deemed worthy of their station and the emperor's approval, all agreed they would 'see' the emperor's new clothes.  How many students will write something the instructor wants to read, despite the evidence before them?  We want students to seek truth, and not what they wish to be true.  Truth starts with the Word of God.  The fear (deep respect) of God is the beginning of knowledge.  It is fools who despise wisdom and discipline.

4.  The model supports families.  The family IS the sustainable model of human existence.  The two-parent family is the model than can reproduce itself!  A strong family can weather illness and disaster.  It can be a safety net for members of other families who are troubled.  It establishes the resources for the offspring to flourish.  In the process, the community benefits, and marriages and friendships that respect the family give both strength and resilience to the overall social network.  We LOVE seeing entire families hanging around, working on their homeschooling in a quiet corner, playing on the large field or in the gym on a rainy day,  the moms connecting to share skills and advice, the dads networking and building their businesses.

5.  It's an environment where I teach the best way I know how.  I'm not delivering a curriculum on the behalf of educationists who believe that parents are incompetent and who show little understanding of how children work.  I meet parents and hear their concerns.  I hear their hopes for their kids.  I have few restrictions on what I might do to get a child to learn.  I want them to do well in any class that follows mine.  That is the true test of my competence as an instructor.  I want to share my love of learning and the subject matter I know.  I don't have to pretend knowledge I don't have because I was assigned a class outside my expertise and training.  My goal is to get kids to want to learn, for that will take them anywhere God wants to take them.

You are welcome to join us.  Check us out at  We offer classes at a church near the middle of Whatcom County.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Studying language religiously

"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I gave up my childish ways."  I Cor 13:11 (from the Bible)

1.  Children have to learn how to speak.

"Now out of the ground, the LORD had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.  And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name."  (Genesis 2:19).

In other words, Adam learned to talk.  I don't think it stopped with the animals.  I think God prodded him to come up with a name for everything, for actions, and conjunctions, and all of the parts of speech.  Why?  God made Adam's intellect to grow with language.  Adam needed to learn language.  Furthermore, God chose to share the companionship of the Trinity with more than Himself, and wanted to communicate with Adam.  It is a tessellation that goes on and on.  God is in relationship with the Trinity, and yet He seeks to share the joy of that relationship with others.

When we are in relationship to God, we want to share that joy with others.

2.  Language lets us share.

Not to say that animals don't have communications abilities.  And I have personal experience that these abilities can be developed somewhat.  But animals don't make up the words.  People do.

The purpose of language is to share!  To share our experience with each other, to share our experience with God.  To share our toys and our food and our blessings with each other.  To share the Kingdom of God with one another.

3.  Prayer is language.

One of my kids was about 14 months old when she first asked for something.  When I figured out what it was she wanted I was happy to give it to her, because she finally used language to ask for something.  For me, the lesson was that we just fail to receive from God's hand because we don't ask.

"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him."  (Matthew 7:11).

Oh yes!  There are groanings we have trouble putting into words.  But this brings me to the point of this blog entry:

4.  We study language because it assists us in our communications with God.

It is NOT enough to just be happy with the words that we know.  God brought every animal to Adam, and Adam gave it a name.  I don't think that stopped with the nouns that are the animals.  God brought ideas to Adam, and Adam gave them names.  The Bible brings tough ideas to us, and we 'learn' them when we can talk about them.  God, who is happy to give good gifts to His children, is happy to listen to your lesson in tough ideas.  Pour your heart out to Him!  He will help you refine your language, which will refine your thinking, which will refine your actions.  The process is through language and prayer.

"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."  James 1:5.

5.  Language, both prose and poetry, can be used to study and to know God.

Do we teach it that way?  Isn't this the highest use of language?  Shouldn't our exercises in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, our exercises in writing sentences, paragraphs, and essays, shouldn't all of this have the end-purpose of communicating better with God?  With sharing and spreading the Kingdom?

Describing what God has done glorifies Him!  This can be science and math.  We worship Him in song, and the poetry of the lyrics is an effort in language.

It's not that EVERY effort in writing needs to be something that can be sung in Heaven.  Grocery lists and instructions don't have to have this qualification.  But the act of choosing the best word for our worship will most definitely carry over into choosing the best word for whatever the task at hand.

But do we teach language, and for that matter, EVERY subject with the bigger picture in mind?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

I went to college for this?

This summer I am a car farmer.

My son is the inventory manager for a local auto recycling yard.  Cars run in the family, and the family has been peripherals of this yard for the 3+ decades of our marriage.  I usually teach summers at the community college, but for a variety of reasons decided I would become a car farmer instead.

My job is in support of inventory management.  Every one of the 200,000 or so parts, from whole cars to a taillight, need to be located and tagged.  When that happens, the front desk can tell customers on the phone, on the web, or standing in front of them if we have the part and how soon we can retrieve it for them.  Sometimes it has to come off of a wrecked car.  Sometimes we can walk out to a shelf and bring it back immediately.

But when things aren’t where we expect to find them we generate frustration at the front desk, unhappy sales people, unhappy customers, distrust, and a poor reputation. Knowing where everything is and being able to lay hands on it in minutes means we can make money faster.  A strong reputation for being able to provide the correct part in the shortest possible time will bring back customers and these customers will bring in additional customers.

It is my job to locate every part and get a bar code tag on every single part.  In addition to the 13+ acres of cars (about 3,000 wrecked cars in the yard) there are about 4 more acres of storage containers and warehouses, some with 2 floors, others with 20’ tall ceilings, that are filled with motors, transmissions, doors, hoods, lights, mirrors, wheels, radiators, flywheels, etc.  Car parts.  

It’s not as easy as it looks!  Some Corvette wheels have left hand patterns or right hand patterns.  It matters whether it’s a left wheel or a right wheel, and the correct tag must be applied!  Sometimes there are three similar wheels, one with minor damage.  That wheel is worth less than the other two.  The correct tag must be attached to that wheel.  A customer may not want to pay for the perfect wheel and may be happy with one with minor scratches.  Let’s pretend we make a mistake and send that customer away with a perfect wheel but for the damaged price.  Later, someone comes in wanting two wheels of similar wear, but when we bring the wheels to the front counter one clearly has damage.  We may lose the sale altogether because the wheels do not look similar enough, or we will have to reduce the price for the mismatched pair.  But the yard is out of the money for one perfect wheel.

Perhaps you feel like a big establishment can eat such errors.  Let’s look at it another way.

There are about 60 people who work for this yard.  The efficiency of the yard most certainly depends on the inventory management.  The yard cannot make money when they can’t sell a part they have.  The correct inventory, properly located and tagged, means the yard is making the most money as quickly as customers arrive.  This money pays those 60 people, most of whom have families to feed, homes and vehicles with payments, children with dreams of college, and occasionally a nice vacation.  These owners are good people, who are happy to give raises when merited and the money is in good supply.  The possibility of this happening is greater when parts are available to be sold.  My job benefits every one of those 60 people.  My job also benefits the owners, who can find the best people to work for them in a well-run establishment.  Good workers who are unhappy move on.

Did I need a college education for this job?  Probably not.  But here are some job skills that my job requires.

Attention to detail.  Tags designating a right side door and a left side door can get mixed up.  I may have to have R and L tattooed on the proper hand!

Accuracy.  The first couple of days I was given the ‘easy’ job of comparing cars in the yard with a list of what was in the yard.  I’m a math teacher, and I felt the numbers would be easy.  But numerical labels are NOT numbers!  For a couple of days I thought I had early-onset Alzheimer’s.  My son was also a little concerned with the errors.  Once he showed me the data entry, however, things clicked.  I began to see the patterns that had meaning that were embedded in the stock numbers on each car, and why they were important.

Persistence.  Every part needs a tag.  Every single part, no exceptions. I cannot walk away from a mess of parts because the pile is too big or ugly.  It must be sorted out and every single piece identified.

Logic.  There might be four tags in my hand, but only three items.  Which one isn’t here?  Where is it?  Why?  How can the descriptions in the database help me decide which tag goes with which item?  Sometimes a location number shows a B instead of an 8.  Is it a different location or was there a readability error?

Willingness to be educated and learn new things.  I’m not afraid to learn new computer skills, but I dislike asking someone three times how to do the same thing.  Fortunately, everyone in the yard knows that I am there to help with their job security.  No one has lost patience with me yet.  Yet.

Inventiveness.  My smartphone has a ton of good tricks.  A chunk of database can be transferred to a spreadsheet that I can carry in my hand.  As I'm climbing over and around things in the yard, having my hands free of clipboards and pens is really important.  Being able to search the spreadsheet for a stock number can help locate an item not in the proper place, and make it available for those who need to find it.  Its photo capabilities mean that I can take or send data to someone who can interpret it, without making them leave what they’re doing and walk to my location.

A sense of order, pattern, and travel.  I am free to change the location of items, making them easier to reach or manipulate.  Sets of wheels shouldn’t go on the top shelf where a ladder is required to reach them.  It becomes enormously difficult to audit the inventory when things are not easily reached.  Each wheel has its own tag, and the barcode scanner needs to see every single tag.  Location changes must be reported, so that the front desk can find things!

Some knowledge of the field.  Anyone willing to learn could be trained to do this, but it goes much faster and more accurately when you can recognize the difference between a bumper cover and a fender.

Some knowledge of other fields.  A pretty flower out in the yard turns out to be a noxious weed.  I recognized it, and have alerted people to just pull it up when they see it.

Some physical strength, agility, and balance.  I am climbing over and under many irregular things, stretching to write numbers in a visible place, standing on tiptoe, crouching low, climbing on racks to reach things, lifting wheels down off of and up to shelves, pulling awkwardly shaped and balanced parts out to find numbers and tags without inflicting damage to either myself or the part, and avoiding wasps and sunburn.

Attention to safety.  The job rather ends if I slip in a puddle of grease and break a knee, or stab myself in the face with a twisted piece of scrap metal.  It’s very easy to get fingers pinched or skin scraped or to trip over something.  We all know this and take action to prevent this, but EVERYONE must do so.

Kindness for people who assist me, thankfulness that my coworkers are ALWAYS willing to help, feedback when someone has been helpful or done an exceptional job, an ear and an eye to look out for someone in difficulty or having trouble with a task.

Willingness to clean up after myself AND others.  There’s a lot of debris floating around a wrecking yard.  When I started, I hadn’t generated any of it.  But cleanliness applies even here, and everyone has to take ownership, even if they didn’t create the mess.  You’ll be happy to hear that our waste and runoff water collection ponds are currently full of tadpoles.

How does this all relate to education?

After just a few weeks on the job I've come up with some games and tasks that might help kids sort and categorize.  Understanding how the world works and being able to communicate what you know is largely about describing categories and sorting.  Sometimes one is easier than the other.  But this is wealth-generating stuff, whether or not you go to college.