Monday, August 24, 2009

Plug Addicts + A Teacher's Dilemma + Mathematics?

Here are some recent "poems" drawing on three decades of teaching, two of them in the public schools in New York City.

Some might not like the tone of these verses. To make matters worse, I append, at the end, some notes for each poem. These notes might offend some even further.

But, when we take a child to see the dentist, would we be content with one who smilingly declares the teeth and gums to be in excellent condition, only to see the poor child suffer later from rotted teeth and abscesses? Or one, who directs attention to the child's apparel, declaring that to be the cause of his/her dental problems?

I cannot prescribe, far less carry out, a cure for all that ails our schools and our society. But, based on many years of labor and observation, I think it would be remiss of me not to point to certain facts that are rarely brought up in the public discourse that we are subjected to on the subject of K-12 education.

The verses, below, are, unavoidably, caricatures. They represent limited viewpoints, not always my own; and they spotlight, at best, only certain aspects of the full reality. The appended notes may clarify slightly my own personal views on some matters -- but again, these are limited views, and they show only a partial picture.

The picture that emerges may appear, however, to be almost a photographic negative of that promulgated by our current educational establishment.

Whether or not one agrees with the assumptions or biases of the viewers represented here, I believe their views should also be taken into account, if only to counter or complement the assumptions, biases and filters of the establishment view.

I also believe, based on first-hand experience, that the aspects of our educational and social reality presented here are real, yet neglected, ones. They deserve greater, and immediate, attention.

-- Arjun Janah < >, 2009 August 22, Brooklyn, New York

Plug Addicts

'Was a time, when teachers, they were paid, I'd say, much less
Than they were worth. They now earn more, but have much greater stress.
The I-Pods and the Game Boys, and the cell phones, texting, more,
Make plain old study, of the books, seem, well, just such a bore!

(And yet, if you could travel like a spirit could, and see
The ones, who conjured up these things, you would amaz-ed be!
For you would find they'd studied books, and done each boring thing,
For only then could they know 'nuff to make your gadgets zing.)

But who pretends to listen now to old and boring teacher,
When we're engrossed in finding out our gadget's newest feature?
And after school, we go to work, to earn ourselves the cash
To supplement what parents spend, in adding to our stash.

So homework? Why, that's for the ones who can't afford these things.
And playing ball, and running 'round? Why bother, when we've wings
That take us to the stadiums, where we can play with heroes,
By pressing on those button-things (that spit out ones and zeroes)?

And after-wards, there's TV shows, and CD's we must watch;
And when we go to class, you see, we're all exhausted, natch!
So school's the time to catch a nap, or flirt with girls and guys,
For we're the kids who bother mom, till she the gizmo buys!

Now there's a teacher, sexy sweet, who teaches down the hall,
And kids who take her classes say they're having such a ball!
For she is into gadgets too, and watches every show.
What else, we ask, would any one, who's savvy, want to know?

(The marketers, like Jobs et al, are laughing to the bank.
Jobs says that books are read no more, by normal file and rank.) \1
Our generation's visual, and when those frigging nerds
Who read, can figure out more stuff, then books we'll flush, with turds!

For see, who still knows how to add, subtract, and (rolling eyes)
Multiply, divide? That's for the pointy-headed guys!
Calculators rule, and soon, machines will hear and read,
So reading, writing, 'rithmetic, we simply will not need. \2

Arjun Janah < >
2009 Aug 16, Sun
Brooklyn, New York

Notes: See section A of the notes -- at the end, below.


A Teacher's Dilemma

When loudness and vulgarity subdue the tempered tongue,
Then should we take recourse to same, and battle, lung to lung?
But can that work? Or would it feed the flames, and fan them more,
So those, of milder nature, burn, right down to inner core?

What then? Should we ignore the speech that so pollutes the air,
And, stoic, both obscenities and loud aggression bear?
Does not this lead, in time, to shift in mores, so that, later,
The one, who dares to ask for peace, is deemed the trouble-maker?

So choosing middle path, we try our best to counsel calm,
And suffer still indignities, and much invective warm.
And if, when patience is at end, and work at hand is stalled,
We ask for help, "Incompetent!" we instantly are called. \1

We look, at eyes of those, who're mute, accustomed to such storms,
And others, new to violence that shatters ancient norms,
And so resolve to carry on, though lesson, time are lost,
But ask, who profits from this curse, and who bears all the cost?

Arjun Janah
2009 August 10th, Mon.

Notes: See section B of the notes -- at the end, below.


"Mathematics? You mean math?" the troubled child inquired,
By mandate strong, from Albany, to take my class required. \1
"I never, ever, figured out what that was all about,
And that, perhaps, is why I choose, to either sulk or shout.

"When I was small, I learned to add, although it was a struggle.
Subtraction? Why, I mastered that, but all the rest's a puzzle!
Multiply, divide? I can, but where's the calculator?
And fractions? Now, you see why I'm a mathematics-hater!"

"Now listen, friend, all that is past, you're now in grade called 'ten',
Which means that things, far more complex, you now will have to ken.
But if you come to class each day, and do your homework daily,
You'll find you'll understand the math, and pass, at end, quite gaily."

"Yo mister, I don't trust your kind, I've heard that speech before.
Mathematics, like all else in school, is such a bore!
Just because I don't like math, don't mean I'm a retard.
Besides, my homies tell me that your test-es are too hard." \2

Arjun Janah
2009 August 22nd, Sat.

Notes: See section C of the notes -- at the end, below.


Notes, Section A: On "Plug Addicts"

A1. Steve Jobs, (lately infirm) head of Apple, and driving force behind the gloss of market-breakthrough audiovisual offerings such as the Macintosh of the 1980's and (in his later resurrection) the I-Mac, I-Pod and I-Phone, was said to have ridiculed Amazon's recent introduction of the Kindle e-reader, asserting, "Nobody reads books anymore."

A2. There is a common complaint that many teachers do not utilize, sufficiently, the rapidly changing technology of our times, nor do they make sufficient effort to engage the rapidly vacillating attention of many of our children, who are accustomed to the "highs" and shortcuts provided by this technology. Employment of useful technology, and efforts to engage our students, should be actively encouraged. But there is a danger, here, of joining in a "race to the bottom" as regards attention span and depth -- two essential markers of normal psychological growth and maturation.

The commercial, ad-driven TV networks are an example of this trend. Apart from their quality and content, one cannot but note that their pandering to short attention span and use of attention-grabbing devices has profoundly affected, in a sort of vicious spiral downwards, the attentional health of their viewers, especially children for whom TV has been the basic babysitter from infancy onwards.

Education is not simply entertainment. The building up of attention span and depth is an essential part of both informal and formal education. Without this mental stamina, a child (or, for that matter, an adult) does not have the wherewithal needed for any kind of sustained mental activity, or even for any but the most shallow human relationships. Nor can they resist being manipulated by others. This manipulation may come from unscrupulous marketers who target children as well as gullible adults, and from politicians with sufficient money (often from powerful interests) to buy themselves unfettered access to media.

The "critical thinking" skills that teachers are so often (usually unfairly) accused of neglecting cannot operate without the traction provided by focused and sustained attention, and without the factual and conceptual background gained, over time, through this attention. Analysis and synthesis cannot proceed in a vacuum, nor even in an incoherent stream of transient, disorganized sensory input.

Also, while technology has its uses, it currently presents, to us, a "black box" configured by wizards. Unlike the technologies of the past, ranging from traditional agriculture and manufacture to writing, reading, and arithmetic, the new information technology is neither locally reproducible nor transparent. As such, rather than empowering, it tends to dis-empower a local population, making it hopelessly dependent on a class of, often distant, hardware and software magicians and on a global network of processing and marketing.

The great breakthrough in global communication and interaction made possible by the Internet should not be minimized in import or potential. However, this again has great potential for positive use as well as for abuse. The vision of the founders of this global network continues to be subverted.

In practical terms, would one prefer that a child interact, in the main, locally, in physical contact with others, or over distance, staring at a computer screen? E-mail, blogs, social websites, cell-phones, texting -- all of these are welcome things insofar as they tie us closer together. Increasingly, more of us are being dispersed by the economic winds that keep us on the move, often leading to separations over great distances. However, these long-distance communication devices are no substitute for local community and physical relationships.

Can an adult really care for a sick child or parent, or make love to a spouse, over the Internet? Can a boy really play ball with friends under a virtual sun? Can a girl put an arm around her disconsolate friend, or wipe away a tear?


Notes, Section B: On "A Teacher's Dilemma"

B1. We still have a few sincere administrators, deans and others who try to help classroom teachers with highly unruly students. However, they seem to be a dwindling minority, as educational policy itself seems to either studiously ignore this crucial problem or else to blithely blame it on teacher incompetence.

Disruptive behavior in classrooms aggravates problems arising from increasingly prevalent attention deficits. It makes learning almost impossible for most students, especially those needing the most help.

Teachers simply cannot do their job as long as such behavior persists. As such, such behavior, if allowed to continue, is often a major contributor to a previously functional school's decline and demise.

One may argue that disruptive behavior in the classroom is itself a symptom of a greater social malaise. This is true. But the children whose learning is critically impaired by such behavior cannot wait for this wider malaise to be addressed. It would be too late for them. Immediate action is needed.

One-on-one counseling for those who disrupt classrooms is essential. The student's own personal history and circumstances need to be taken into account. Teachers are not qualified, by training, to do such counseling. Nor can this be done in a classroom that has thirty-plus other students, each with their own educational needs.

Resources currently expended on endless reforms would be far better utilized for this essential task. The teacher has to be able to teach, the students to learn.

Social pathologies, the products of history and economics, can devastate not only individuals, but entire generations of an affected community.


Notes, Section C: On "Mathematics?"

C1. For those not familiar with New York State, Albany is the state capital, and so also the central seat of the state's Department of Education.

C2. I have never taught a mathematics class at the K-12 level (except as a sub). So this conversation above is purely fictional.

However, I've had to teach, or re-teach, a great deal of basic mathematics as a teacher of high school physics, chemistry, earth science and basic "physical science". Indeed, I've constantly had to butt my head against those who implicitly or explicitly work on variations of the following paradigms:

-- students are like light bulbs that are either permanently on or
off as regards mathematics;
-- each us has a static, maximum capacity in mathematics and other
subjects, a ceiling that is truly reachable in K-12 (or later,
in higher) education.

I have met many teachers of mathematics and other subjects, as well as many administrators, who hold such views. Some of them have a lot of experience in education, while others are relative novices.

Although I still hold my contrary ground, in this regard, when it comes to my own philosophy and practice of teaching, I cannot completely disregard the opinions of those in the field, especially those who are experienced.

The truth, as in all such things, probably lies somewhere between extreme views. Our bodies and minds have great potential plasticity, which may be expressed in highly positive ways, given motivation, persistence, guidance and encouragement. However, we probably cannot create, on demand, Olympic gold-medalists or mathematical or musical geniuses.

But more of us will find common ground in this: the attitudes, especially of students (but also of parents, teachers and administrators) cannot but affect learning outcomes.

Whether student apathy or discouragement results primarily from sincere effort leading to repeated failures (not so much in formal examinations as in actual basic comprehension of subject matter and self-confidence in skills) or from lack of sincere effort and persistence, or from other causes, one can debate forever.

The same, one might add, is true of apathy and discouragement when these manifest themselves in the ranks of teachers and administrators.

Expectations and outcomes can spiral downward or upward, in vicious or virtuous circles. One needs to avoid the easy, blanket generalizations that blind one to either the virtues and abilities, or the vices and disabilities, of our students.

Each of us does have a finite capacity for enduring punishment, before giving up. If it were not so, we would, sooner or later, batter ourselves to death like flies up against a glass wall. This is a basic survival instinct, that modifies behavior based on feedback from outcomes, and conserves energy and resources for worthwhile and attainable ends.

However, some, both children and adults, do give up more easily than others, while some may, indeed, push themselves to the point of injury to physical and mental health. These "habits of persistence" arise both from individual, perhaps inborn, characteristics and from social influences.

It behooves those, who have a hand in designing and modifying systems of education, to ensure that goals are achievable without need for heroic, and unsustainable, effort, and that sincerity and effort are encouraged rather than punished. The social context in which schools must operate cannot be ignored. This context is neither an excuse for inaction, nor is it avoidable when planning and executing meaningful educational policies.

In my own experience, having watched schools go from functional to non-functional as local communities changed, even while much of the teaching staff did not, this social factor appears to be a primary driver of a school's quality.

The extreme difficulty of addressing the social roots of many educational problems should not result in avoidance activity that leaves the primary cause untouched, while indulging in (often puerile) "educational reforms" and misguided teacher-purges. These cause even greater devastation to students' educational prospects.

Of course, any kind of educational initiative that does not actively elicit real input and feedback from classroom teachers, as well as from sincere students and their parents, and modify itself accordingly, cannot possibly succeed, except as a temporary cosmetic measure.