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Math Night


I’m gonna generalize in this post because I have to. I’m also sort of uniquely positioned to generalize because I see this issue from both sides — being both a teacher and a parent. So I know this is a not-all-parents situation, but man oh man, it feels like too many parents.

Anyway.

Last night was Math Night at the sprouts’ school, and because we are dutiful parents, my wife and I were in attendance.

And, I mean, maybe I’m dumb for thinking Math Night is going to be some sort of *event* — you know, a math-themed sort of celebration with games and events and all. (This is at an elementary school, after all.) But no. Math Night is essentially an expanded parent-teacher conference; a way for the teachers of each grade level to meet with parents en masse and disseminate information about upcoming tests and what standards they’re covering and all of that good stuff. Actually very useful information, but really, just a conference.

Of course, if they call it an “informational meeting on math and standards”, attendance would be even lower than it was. So “Math Night” it is. And they serve pizza. Because nothing brings people in like free cheap pizza.

Ahem.

We go to Math Night.

And I immediately find out what I already knew, which is that I don’t really need to be here. Both of our kids are doing pretty well in math in their classes (which I already knew) and the teachers’ purpose tonight is to sort of explain how the curriculum works and what strategies they’re teaching the kids (which the kids have explained to me). The presentations only take about twenty minutes. Blissfully short, in my opinion. Then there’s a question-and-answer period.

Which is where it goes off the rails.

Look, a question-and-answer period is pretty straightforward. A speaker gives out a bunch of information on a topic. When they’ve finished, they allot extra time for anybody in attendance who didn’t quite get it or who missed something to ask clarifying questions about the topic. You know, information that might directly benefit everybody else in the room, said information being pertinent to the topic at hand. And as I always tell my students, if there’s a question you have after listening to somebody talk, odds are somebody else in the room has the same question, they’re just too afraid to ask it.

But I know what’s coming, because this is not our first Math Night. We’ve done it before. And there is always a parent (or two!) who want to ask questions totally unrelated to the topic or the occasion. They’re sitting here with their kids’ teachers, after all, so why not ask the teachers specific questions about their student specifically?

(This is not the way to do it.)

So the rest of the parents in the room get treated to a lengthy discussion about how this student struggles with her work habits (not the topic) and is struggling with reading (also not the topic) and gets upset when they correct her work (still not the topic). The teachers are uncomfortable as roaches under a sun lamp discussing this stuff in front of the group — you know, because teachers aren’t meant to divulge personal information like that (and also because, y’know, NOT THE TOPIC) — but the mom keeps going on and on. And I’m not really listening and it’s just kind of droning on and man could the clock please go a little faster so this session can end and we can leave and somehow it breaks through the fog:

“I mean, of course, we took her phone away, but I don’t know what to do besides that.”

What? Er — what??

We’re in a 2nd grade class. Kids seven and eight years old. “We took *her* phone away.” Which means it’s the kid’s phone, not mom’s or dad’s phone that the kid uses.

So — let me get this straight. You gave your kid — your (let’s be charitable) eight-year-old kid — a magical internet box of her very own, and you’re confused as to why she gets upset about doing homework? Heck, most adults you come across can’t successfully integrate their lives with these things — we get consumed with social media likes and Youtube rabbit holes and push notifications to the point that they destroy our lives. And your kid has one of their very own.

Gee, I wonder why your kid is having math issues! I flippin’ wonder!

On the one hand, I get it. I really do. Screens are prolific and it’s next to impossible to keep kids off of ’em. Our kids use the tablets to watch garbage before they go to sleep at night, which, okay, yeah, I know, it’s terrible. But the tablets are not theirs, they don’t have ready, instant access to the things just anytime and for lack of anything better to do, and we monitor their time. And yeah, I also get that the “new math” of the Common Core is hard. I’m decent with numbers and even I go a little bit glassy eyed trying to understand some of the techniques they use. (The way they teach regrouping now is … just do yourself a favor and avoid it if you can. They showed us an image of the method and it looked like the hash-mark riddled wall of a twenty-year death row inmate. Hell, they’re teaching the kids “base 10” notation in the 2nd grade now. I don’t think I even heard of base 10 until I was at least 17 and even then struggled with it; and I’d wager that half the adults my age couldn’t explain what base 10 even is.) But you know what that means? That means you have to shake off the dust and learn the stuff so you can help your kid do it.

That’s what being a parent is. You suffer some inconveniences — and often some outright pains-in-the-tuchus — for the benefit of your progeny. That’s the deal you make when you bring a kid into the world.

But the problem isn’t even that this woman’s seven-year-old has a phone of her very own. I mean, that’s a problem, but it’s a relatively minor problem.

The problem is that this woman is the type of parent who’s involved enough to go to the Math Night event in the first place.

As a teacher, I can tell you (and here’s where I generalize) that the parents who come to events for parents are the types of parents who don’t actually need to come to events for parents. What I mean by that is, the parents who come to these things are the parents who are going the extra mile anyway — you’re talking about the top 10-15% of parents when it comes to more-or-less healthy involvement in their kids’ lives. The parents who need to come to these things — the parents of those kids “on the bubble” as it were, who need an extra push to help school make sense and come together — those parents are nowhere to be seen on parent nights. They’re off doing whatever else they have to do that’s more important than their kids’ education.

You see the calculus ticking toward a result, here.

This woman who was here for parent night — and therefore in the top 10-15% of parents — thought that giving her seven-year-old a phone was a good decision. Didn’t know how to help her kid focus.

This is what we’re up against. This is what these kids are up against.

Point is: Math Night is annoying.

And every parent needs to be there.


My Wife, the Overachiever


There is something wrong with my wife.

She’s incredibly intelligent, incredibly patient with our kids, and incredibly talented at putting up with my particular brand of daily nonsense and idiocy.  I frankly don’t know how she does it.  In addition to being a stay-at-home mom and an occasional on-call news writer, she’s in her third year of a Master’s program.  I’ve seen her daily planner and it gives me the spins.

I should point out that this is not me sucking up.  She gave me explicit permission to write about this, though perhaps not to write about it in the way I’m going to write about it.

It’s a not insignificant feather in her cap that throughout this Master’s program she’s maintained straight A’s.  It’s doubly not insignificant in that her program is a program really designed for teachers and sort of assumes she has ready access to the resources of a school, which she does not.  It’s triply not insignificant in that she’s doing the overwhelming majority of the work from home, which means she spends hours daily reading textbooks thick and dense enough to lay a foundation with and then posting responses and building portfolios and collaborating online with her slacker classmates and just generally making me feel like a schlub for putting in my workday at school and coming home too exhausted to do much more than make dinner and sack out.  Add to that the fact that the sprout only wants her to put him to bed anymore and that every other hour she’s either got an infant or a breast pump attached to her chest and, well, I am starting to wonder if she hasn’t in fact been bitten by a kryptonite spider (that’s a thing, right?).

I think we’re both gifted with more than our share of innate intelligence, my wife and I.  The key difference between my wife and I is that she takes her natural ability and slides into the driver’s seat, finding ways to make the best of herself and challenge herself in even the smallest of projects, while I, um, well, I like video games and writing blarg posts about the inconsequential minutiae of my life.   Oh, and I locked OUR ENTIRE FAMILY out of the house not two weeks ago.  She gets straight A’s in her graduate program, and I routinely load the dishwasher and forget to run it, then get mad at the dishes for being dirty in the morning.

Anyway, she’s home with the sprouts today, studying up on educational practices for exceptional education while breastfeeding the infant and keeping the toddler from killing himself in any of the dozen ways that the house presents him with, and she has to take a quiz for her online course.  Well, the instructor called it a quiz, but it was an eighty question marathon that ended up taking her two hours to complete.  I’m going to leave aside the issue of the instructor giving a non-retake-able “quiz” at eighty questions (seriously, who has that kind of time?).  She gets about halfway through the thing and the sprouts start to wake up from their naps and she has to finish the quiz while they’re screaming and slurping at her and throwing things around the living room and making her life unbearable.

She got an eighty-five.

Now, here’s the difference between my wife and me.  If it’s me taking this quiz, and I got an eighty-five in a vacuum, I’m pleased as my dog when we leave the room and our dinner plates are still on the table.  If I got an eighty-five with the sprouts bouncing off the walls and pulling and tugging at me and screaming and I’m in pain from my body producing ungodly amounts of infant food, I expect nothing short of a ticker-tape parade complete with elephants playing trumpets and midget monkeys building a walking humanoid Eiffel Tower.  My wife gets the eighty-five, and she is furious.  I’m talking about there has been no happiness in her life since it happened.  She’s mad as hell that the quiz was misrepresented and she was unable to properly budget her time for it, and she’s concerned because her post-graduate GPA of 4.0 could conceivably be in jeopardy thanks to this one quiz.

She might as well be French-Canadian for all the sense this makes to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate a perfect record as much as the next guy, but I will also be the first to point out that the piece of paper you get at the end of a graduate program like this is the same if you squeak by as if you pass with flying colors.  Which is not to say I advocate mediocrity or not living up to your potential; rather, I maintain that you should do your best under the circumstances you exist in and not burn yourself out like the human candle trying to achieve perfection in every aspect of your life.  (In writing that, I feel suddenly as if I’ve outed myself as one of those slackers for whom, as a teacher, I would probably have a few choice words.)

How does she do it?  How can a person chase perfection in so many aspects of her life, and perhaps more puzzlingly, how does such a person end up with a slackerjack like me?  And finally and perhaps most importantly, will she murder me where I sit for giving her a hard time about it in front of my tiny internet audience?


This is Only a Test


Everything is a test.

No, seriously.  There are no exceptions.  If you’re not testing yourself, you’re being tested by your peers, and if you’re not being tested by your peers, then you’re being tested by your kid, and if you’re not being tested by your kid, then you’re being tested by THE UNIVERSE.  But here, today, specifically, I’m talking about academic testing, and to be ultra-specific, I’m talking about academic testing in public schools.

America has lost its mind over testing.  The education system is so twisted up in knots over the issue, it’s like a drunken octopus having a bar brawl with another octopus, except that the other octopus is just the first octopus’s own back arms.  There’s no way to tell if he’s winning or losing, it’s just flailing and drowning and sucker-arms and ink.  Is that squids?  That’s squids.  Okay, it’s like a squid…

With one hand, they (politicians and boards of education) tell us (actual educators) that it’s not supposed to be all about the test.  That the test is secondary, that there are other, better ways to assess what students have actually learned.  (What are those ways?  Hem, haw, well, that’s, you know, we don’t know.  Performance assessment?  You can grade those fairly, right?  RIGHT?)  With the other, they shut down schools for weeks at a time to do what?  Oh yeah, assess student learning in the only way that really makes sense, the only way you can really measure it.  TEST.

But we’re not supposed to teach to the test.  No, no.  Teaching to the test is teaching in a vacuum.  Bad, bad.  Connect what you’re teaching to the real world.  But is that on the test?  NOPE.  Because you can’t test that.  Not efficiently.  So we go around in circles not unlike a tremendous deuce circling the drain.  Teach this, not this.  Here’s the test, but ignore it.  Whatever.  I don’t have the answers to the problems of this testing issue, and I won’t pretend to.  What I will do is share with you some testing-related absurdities.

It’s no wonder students freak the fargo out when it’s time to test.  It’s not uncommon for schools to have counselors on standby in case some kid has a total nervous breakdown.  Like just shutting down and refusing to pick up a pencil.  Or throwing a desk.  Or staging a potato salad riot in the cafeteria.  That didn’t happen?  Okay, but the first thing definitely happens.

Other things happen, too.  Here are a few things which have happened in my school over the past week of End of Course Testing.  All of these things require a full written account by the testing administrator to justify after-the-fact corrections to an answer sheet and, in some cases, a rescheduled testing session for the student in question.

1.  A student nearly came to blows with a teacher trying to confiscate his phone in accordance with testing rules.  The student would later claim he “didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to have it” despite signs on every door in the building, a verbal admonition at the beginning of every testing session, a warning on the morning announcements, and general goldfingered common sense.

2.  Numerous students (like, too many to count) misspelled the name of the school.  And, I’m sorry, our school does not have a funky name.

3.  A student misspelled his own name.  I am not making this up.  (By the way, is it bad that as an English teacher I had to look up how to spell “misspell”?  I think that’s bad.  It’s also ironic.)

4.  A student fell asleep and drooled all over his answer sheet.  (This, apparently, happens all the time.)

5.  A teacher fell asleep and was therefore unable to call time at the end of the session, thus negating an entire classroom’s testing session.  (Okay, that wasn’t my school, but holy sharknado.)

*Heavy exhale*  It’s not my goal to be a dumper.  I really try to find positives and find productive ways forward, but this whole squid-octopus bar-brawl clusterfargo over testing is so asgard-end-up that it’s impossible for a guy like me to see any kind of light at the end of any sort of tunnel.  We are deep underground, running out of air, and at times it feels like it’s time to call off the search.  Don’t even get me started on a Common Core debate.

Aaand this is the part where I realize I’ve lost what little audience I have.  Too many education-related posts on my non-education-themed blarg and I’ve burned the souffle.  Or the souffle went rogue and attacked the chef with a blowtorch.  Don’t fargo with souffles.

FINAL THOUGHT: Testing is like a butthole.  It stinks.

No, that’s it.  You were expecting something more eloquent?

Don’t worry, next post won’t be about work stuff.  It’ll be about… I dunno.  Space unicorns.


Questions Not To Ask Your Teacher: “Is My Grade Going Up?”


Another teacher post, here.  I try to keep them from coming too often because I know that I have readers of all walks and I don’t want to alienate by writing too much about any one thing.  That said, sometimes it just has to be done, and the first day back from spring break brought with it an incident that my inner Id-Writer won’t turn loose of until I purge it.

Kids are lazy.  I get it.  I see it in my own two-year-old, and he doesn’t even know how to be lazy.  I shouldn’t say lazy.  I should say they are efficiency seekers.  Nature abhors wasted energy.  A tree grows only as high as it must in order to harvest the sunlight it needs to reproduce.  A pride of lions hunts only when they are hungry, otherwise they are basically enormous housecats looking for a patch of sunlight or shade to lie in, depending on the season.  So, too, do humans, and by extension human children, have a biological imperative to get as much for as little as they can.  I understand this.    It makes perfect sense.  The problem is, we are no longer driven by survival.  A child does not risk starvation if it does not complete its homework.  It will not die of exposure if it does not get its room clean on time.

The energy that would once have been devoted to survival is now (in a perfect world) devoted to making a child the best future human it can be, and that means enriching the mind.  The yachts and mansions and shiny red convertibles don’t, as a rule, go to the dunces.  They go to the smartest and then to the bankers and then to the politicians (the rest of us are just BORROWING their money).  So while academic achievement doesn’t benefit a kid in the immediate, (working hard & getting good grades would be “wasted energy” in a survivalist sense) it benefits them in the long term.

This leads us to selective laziness.  A clever future human quickly does the math and realizes that there is a balance to be struck between doing the best that you can (applying all of your energy) and doing only what you need to do in order to survive.  Of course, the risk-assessment portions of our brains don’t fully form until we are, I dunno, thirty or so, so it’s even harder for a kid (and let me clarify that I’m talking about any kid in government-sanctioned school age, which is to say, any 5- to 18-year-old) to grasp that “doing your best” in school might be a wise course of action.  Mom and Dad can push you in that direction, of course, but you can only fight nature to a point, depending on how big your stick is (anybody else out there get punished for bad grades?  Yeah, you can spot us pretty easily, we’re the ones not dropping out of high school in droves).  Incidentally, this is why a student’s grade in a class is not a good indicator of their intelligence.  Any teacher will tell you that the smartest kids in the class are rarely the ones with the highest grades.  The smartest ones are usually the ones barely passing.  (NOTE THAT I DID NOT SAY ALL THE ONES BARELY PASSING ARE THE SMARTEST.  WE’LL GET TO THEM.)  They’ve figured out exactly how hard they need to work to pass (and by virtue of passing, get their parents off their backs, and by virtue of getting their parents off their backs, how to do what they want to do, which is be a teenager, sleep in, eat pop-tarts, and play Call of Duty).  Selective laziness allows them to do this. I have a host of students — very nearly half — in my English class whose grades have hovered within a handful of points of 75 for most of the year.  They could do better.  Easily.  But they don’t.  They haven’t made the connection.  One day they will.  Maybe there will be regret, and maybe not, but the best I can do is to try and help them to see this situation for what it is.  A waste of energy, and a waste of potential.

Whew.  This brings us to the fun part, which is pointing out how dumb some of my students are.  I shouldn’t say dumb.  I should say lazy.  And this time I mean lazy, which is to say, they don’t want to do ANYTHING they’re not interested in, whether they pass or not.  That’s not selective.  That’s just, well, a failure of evolution.

I’ve got a handful of kids who are not passing.  It’s unfortunate, but in the majority of their cases, it’s what needs to happen.  They haven’t yet learned what they need to (and I’m talking about the ability to read, analyze, and make sense of what they’re reading — you know, the things you, dear reader, can do without really pausing to think about it) and they need to go back and try it again.

It doesn’t stop them, bless their hearts, from trying, in whatever ways are available to them.  Of course, hand-in-hand with this extreme aversion to work is an aversion to common sense.  Which brings me, finally, to the comment that set in motion my ramble for today.

The child in question has been failing since about the second week of the year, which is to say, since the time I put in the first grades.  His grade has been no secret to anybody, least of all him, and he has, since the end of the year is suddenly upon us and he has realized that he will be a senior again next year, finally taken an interest.  We talked briefly prior to Spring Break about his grade and what he needed to do to have a chance at passing for the year.

So he comes to me today (first day back) and asks me, “Is my grade going up?”

I teach over 100 kids.  It’s virtually impossible for me to know offhand what an individual student’s grade is off the top of my head.  Thankfully, there are apps for that, and we have wonderful technology at our disposal to garner this information at a moment’s notice.  Which I do.  I start logging in to systems and pulling files.  Then it dawns on me.  He hasn’t turned in anything since we spoke.

This I tell him.  He nods and says, “yeah, I just wanted to see if my grade’s going up.”  I look at him oddly, in much the way I imagine God must have looked at Adam (if you believe in that sort of thing) when Adam told God that, yeah, he had actually had some of the fruit from that one tree God had specifically told him not to touch, you weren’t serious about that, right, God?  (Did I just analogize myself with God?  I think I did.)

I ask him how he expects his grade to have changed when he has not in fact done any work, and he just sort of looks at me like I’m speaking in Latin.  They do this a lot when I move my modifiers around or use big words like “appropriate requirements” or “requisite amount of work”, which I do for the purpose of seeing them look at me like I’m speaking in Latin.

I am torn between feeling badly for him and his parents and the teachers that will teach him again next year, and being abjectly horrified at the amount of taxpayer dollars and man-hours that have gone into this child’s education only to bounce aside, as impactful as spitballs to a Panzer.  Dribbles from a spigot in his ocean of academic indifference.

Sidenote: Thanks to this post, I’m going to be calling all my students “future humans” from now on.


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