Thursday, July 24

Just Ramblin, No. 11: Naming kids; four-day school week

We Americans live in a great country. I love the variety of people, of geography, of traditions, of ethnicities. I love the options and opportunities to explore and to learn. But there are some wacky things that happen here. Fortunately, we are not alone in being wacky.

I saw an article in yesterday's news that a judge in New Zealand finally said enough to unusual, even bizarre names. The story is about girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Seriously. That's her name. Well, that was her name. The judge renamed her. And the 9-year-old was so embarrassed by her name that she created a nickname for herself and never told her friends her real name. Can you imagine that first day of school each year when the teacher takes attendance? Wow. How did she get around that?

But how about parents who might want to name a child Fish and Chips or Number 16 Bus Shelter? I know of kids who have been named after the towns in which they were conceived which made me wonder about that bus shelter name.

Apparently there is New Zealand legislation that forbids parents from naming their children something that might cause offense to a reasonable person. There's an interesting riff there, too. Would a reasonable person name her child Fish and Chips? or Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii? And what about being offended by the foolishness of someone who would impose such a name on their child? Then again, if we look at celebrity naming approaches. . . .

Back in the good ol' US of A, rural school districts are contemplating a four-day school week because of high gas prices. Apparently some districts in Kentucky, New Mexico, and Minnesota have already gone to a four-day school week. In many ways, it makes sense. Saves transportation costs, but also saves money for heating and cooling, lights, etc.

While I think this makes a lot of sense in some ways, I find it ironic that this is case at the same time that schools are wrestling with the length of the school day and the length of the school year, parents complaining about the loss of summer, debate about year-round schools, and concern about our place in the global academic world.

I get the point of saving money, but how does this help the kids learn? What I want to know is what kinds of adjustment the adminstrations and teachers are able to make to make sure kids have access to the kind of learning and resources they need. What do students do on the day they are not in school? Are schools supplementing classroom time with some sort of at-home or independent or online study? Are teachers able to organize some sort of group study/learning events that are more local to the students? Are parents more involved in their childrens' educations? What kind of impact does this have on any kind of intermural or school activities?

I don't think a four-day school week is necessarily a bad idea and understand the economic driver behind it, but education needs to be about the kids and their educations. So I hope those school districts have come up with some really innovative ways to help their students continue to learn rather than simply having a long weekend every weekend.

Monday, July 21

Mama Mia!

I went to see Mama Mia! over the weekend. Twice. Once with my mom and stepdad while I was in Florida and once with a friend when I got home. It was a great ride both times.

I didn't know anything about the movie before seeing it the first time except who the stars are, the premise, and the music. And the ads I'd seen on TV. The theater was packed on Saturday afternoon. Mostly women, but a few intrepid husbands who probably had little choice. The audience laughed, guffawed, and cried. It's just a slightly bawdy romp with a blast from the ABBA past. If my folks are any indication, most of the people in the audience had never heard of ABBA and certainly didn't know the music.

Before I went to see the movie late Sunday afternoon with my friend, I'd read two reviews. Big mistake. The first was by someone online who'd made up his or her mind not to like it before he or she saw it though claimed to be an objective reviewer. The second was by Michael Phillips with whom I generally disagree anyway. I found myself looking to see if he had made any valid points from my perspective.

One of the reasons for seeing a movie more than once is to enjoy again whatever you thought were the good parts, but also to catch up on what you'd missed. Phillips thought the women's performance were more competitive than collegial. What?? I thought the performances were full of adlibs, which made it even funnier to me. Of course, in Phillips' defense, he had seen the stage play three times and had fallen into that trap of trying to compare a film version with a stage version. He mostly slammed the intrepid director, but doesn't seem to understand the whole giddiness of the music and the freedom that a film allows that a stage production cannot.

Is Meryl Streep a brilliant vocalist? I think the woman has pipes, but what do I know? I enjoyed her performances; I think the chemistry between Streep, Baranski, and Walters was engaging and fun. I think Baranski was impressive in her solo number. Can Pierce Brosnan sing? Well, technically, yes. Is he good at it? Nope, but he's never pretended to be a vocalist. They let him stay in the movie in spite of his lack of singing ability, didn't ask him to talk-sing through the film (think Rex Harrison and My Fair Lady) and just went with it. Which is sort of the spirit of the move.

I loved the campy Greek chorus and Walters' line about it being very Greek. I loved the silly epilogue. I loved that there was enough narrative for me to understand the basics of the plot, nothing was too overdone though I would have loved to have seen more of the dancing from a distance of the Voulez Vous number. I thought that the Dancing Queen number was raucous, fun, as exuberant as the music.

I had fun watching the movie. I was entertained. I was transported for a period of time which is what movies are supposed to be about. Is it silly, somewhat schlocky, somewhat campy. It's a musical based on ABBA songs. What do you expect? I mean, really.

I think movie critics need to stop taking themselves so freakin' seriously. I think the cast had way too much fun making this movie. I think it would be a riot if this became sort of camp, cult film so that the audiences sang the songs with the movie. I did, though not out loud and it would have been fun and it seemed like a lot of folks in the audiences of both showings I saw had a lot of fun. Tragic that, huh?

Sunday, July 13

Just Ramblin, No 10: Best "ever"?

In today's Chicago Tribune there is a great article about 74-year-old twins Julie and Jennie Papilli who have been swimming in Lake Michigan since they were 12. They are, apparently, legendary among those who frequent the lake. As Mary Schmich writes, "They swim a mile south to Oak Street and return, side by side, always with a backstroke. Even in the cold months, they never wear wet suits" (Metro, pg. 1). There is something comforting about this story, though somewhat eerie about two women who have lived their lives so completely intertwined.

Dr. Michael DeBakey died Friday, July 11 at the age of 99. He was best known for his work in coronary artery surgery. I mean no disrespect to Dr. DeBakey and the work he did. No doubt thousands of people are alive because of his inventions, his research, his surgery. But I stumbled a little bit when I read that many considered him the "greatest surgeon ever."

I must confess that my thoughts stumbled a bit when I read the recent Sports Illustrated cover proclaimed that the Nadal-Federer Wimbledon finals match was the "best ever." It was impressive. It sent John McEnroe into fits of verbal excess. I think anyone who knows even a little about tennis was wowed by that match. And SI reported the match got the best ratings since 2000. Was it the best match ever? I don't know. I won't know. Maybe "ever so far," but "ever until the end of time"?

So though Dr. DeBakey was an incredible physician who made huge strides in medical research on many levels, was he the best "ever"? Does that mean that no one can ever again do for medicine what Dr. DeBakey has done? And though Tiger Woods plays incredible golf, he has been beaten. And yes, Tiger came back to beat Rocco Mediate and did so with a bum knee which means had he been 100% Rocco might not have gotten any of that attention or spotlight. So is Tiger the best golfer "ever"? Does that mean that no other golfer, male or female at any time in the future will be able to best what Tiger has done on courses around the world?

Maybe. Maybe they are the best "ever," but maybe they are only the best ever so far. That gives us more wonder to look forward to.

Friday, July 11

Just Ramblin, No 9: Oil speculation, Brett Favre

Today I am a genius. I've been thinking a lot about the oil situation and contemplating the speculation that is behind it. I've read articles by economists who claim the problem is not speculation and other articles by other economists who believe it could be, might be.

The reason I'm a genius today is that I received an open letter from United--as did all United customers and probably all airlines customers--asking me to support them in lobbying Congress to eliminate speculation on oil. All 12 airline CEOs seem to be asking the public to go to Stop Oil Speculation Now as part of the lobbying process. I've written individual emails to a few members of Congress. That's like trying to empty the ocean with a strainer. Useless. But I've long believed that part of the problem behind the oil prices is speculators. That seemed to be a big part of the economic problem in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Of course, I've also spoken out against lobbyists because those specially paid professionals tend not to represent me. But now I get to be a lobbyist and represent me. Is this an awesome country or what? The big question is, of course, whether or not Congress will listen. The next big question is whether or not this is the right course of action. I dunno, but I'm on it.

I also heard on the news a very frustrated sounding Chuck Greener, SVP of Communications for Fannie Mae, speak out about the market because of the rumors swirling around the possibility of Treasury nationalizing the companies. Even Christopher Dodd, chair of the Senate Banking Committee members had to speak out in defense of Fannie Mae. I'm not remotely close to be an economist, but that market action seems like speculation to me. I'm just sayin'.

Brett Favre. Not surprisingly, it seems the guy doesn't want to retire after all. There was, of course, a ton of speculation (there's that word again) about how soon he might come back after he retired or if he'd come back. Bookies somewhere are hoping to cash in big depending on which way this goes. Of course, this might all be rumor. Because the Packers seem to have committed to Aaron Rogers for the upcoming season, Favre seems to be asking to be released and seems to be interested in shopping himself to other teams. The rumor mill is churning with the possibility he might go to the Chicago Bears (please say it isn't so!!), the Minnesota Vikings (the gloating will never end), or the hapless Miami Dolphins. I'm sure there are others. If the rumors are true and he wants to come back, and the Packers don't want him, and he wants to be released, I can only hope he goes anywhere but Chicago or Minnesota. I could live with him going to the Dolphins. I grew up in Florida and was a Dolphins fan until the Jimmy Johnson era. He was more than I could stomach. And I became a Packers fan for no particular good reason, but I love the passion and guttiness of the Packers fans and team. Just more speculation to watch and wonder about.

Now I'm off to examine Stop Oil Speculation Now a bit more closely.

Tuesday, July 8

Just Ramblin, No 8: Teaching and tutoring

Between munching on a handfuls of blueberries (one of the many reasons I love summer) and doing assorted paperwork, I decided to catch up on a bit of reading. I picked up the July 4 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education and noted a lead in the sidebar (though if it's at the bottom of the page and in the middle of the page, is it really a "sidebar"?) reading thus: "Extra Help Is No Help. Three studies say remedial college courses may have little effect." Um, duh.

The article by Peter Schmidt (available online only if you have a subscription) notes that "well over one-fourth of entering college students end up in remedial classes" (p. A18), which seems to indicate there has been something of a decrease over the years. Schmidt notes that each study examines remedial programs in different states. The Florida study compiled data on 100,000 community college students who were assigned to remedial classes because of their placement test scores. The Texas-based study considered data of 255,000 students who attended two-year public colleges and over 197,000 students who attende four-year public institutions while the third study "tracked the long-term progress of 28,000 students at two- and four-year public colleges in Ohio" (p. A18).

The results are mixed in that the studies seem to indicate, as noted, that there is no long-term benefit for students who take remedial courses. They accrue more credit hours, but remedial hours do not count towards graduation so they aren't getting too much for their tuition dollars if there isn't any measurable difference. Schmidt states that students who took a remedial reading class "were actually less likely to pass college-level English composition classes down the road" (p. A18). Yes, well, that's no surprise.

I got to teach Basic Math, the remedial math class my then institution offered. And I do mean "got" to teach because I learned so much from that experience! As a recovering mathphobic myself, I appreciated the students' consternation when confronted with fractions and mathematical operations. We found all sorts of ways to help students understand the intricacies of multiplying mixed fractions. And we found all sorts of ways to help students understand the complexities of working with decimals and percentages. I say "we" because I didn't do all of the work. Long before I knew of the TIMSS study or about constructivism or about lesson study concepts, by default I figured it made sense to give students some fundamental building blocks and then let them build their own processes. I was hanging around to suggest possibilities, to help them backtrack when they got stuck, and to provide some levity to the whole serious process. I should note that I had left my corporate job a year or so before I had to teach Basic Math and was just sort of figuring out how to do the teaching thing for my computer science classes, too.

Later in my teaching career I had to teach the remedial writing course. This was not as fun, which is odd because I love, love, LOVE teaching freshman writing. But I had trouble relating to these kids because reading and writing had never been hard for me. And I also had trouble finding any kind of building blocks because the difference between those students' reading and writing abilities and what I knew they had to be able to do for freshman writing let alone any other general education or majors course seemed a chasm impossible to bridge. And that was before I started working with ELL/ESL students who were having to take remedial courses.

What also doesn't make any sense to me is the nature of the restrictions for the remediated student while being remediated, at least in my experience at four-year public and private institutions. The students weren't allowed to take any more than 13 hours (12 is full-time), so they might have 6 hours of remediation courses and then another 6 hours of actual general education courses. So some ELL/ESL student who is taking reading and study skills as well as developmental writing might also be in, say, History of Civilization I. . . which has a LOT of reading. That kid is being set up to fail, which means that kid is going to have repeat that history course which means now there is added pressure to catch up, never mind graduate.

I appreciate the tasks of the admissions counselors who want to make sure the entering freshman class boasts a nice FTE, preferably greater than the preceding year's. But if students have to drop out because they are failing or are dropped because they are failing, then the attrition numbers are high for very unnecessary reasons. (I've often said to folks who may or may not be listening that though the freshman class size has a nice boast potential, what's far more important and indicative is the freshman-sophomore retention rate.)

It seems to me that it makes more sense to change the policy for students who require remediation, though that probably means making changes to financial aid regulations. So much for this idea, but here it is anyway.
  1. Be upfront with the students and their parent(s). Let the students know their scores are low and they will not be able to register full-time for their freshman year, perhaps only for the first semester of their freshman year. But the purpose is to make sure they can be successful in the following terms. If the student has a low score in math, the students takes the developmental or remedial math course and takes no more than 6 more hours of courses from a selected list of courses. Limit their exposure to the possibility of outright failure.
  2. Require a tutor or some sort of study hall for their remedial course(s).
  3. Make sure the tutor is well-trained and will work with the students to help them master the content with which they have difficulty.
  4. If they seem to have trouble passing the remedial course successfully, find an alternative path for them to demonstrate knowledge in that content area. Perhaps they know the material but just can't demonstrate what they know through the chosen assessment mechanism.
  5. If it is clear they cannot be successful in the remediated area and it is clear they will fail credited courses which means they won't be able to graduate, stop taking the student's money under false pretenses and counsel them to other options.
  6. Be honest about the limits of remediation, especially in writing.
  7. Make sure that quality tutoring is available to these (and all) students for the balance of their college experience.

I had plenty of students in my freshman writing classes who struggled to get to the minimum C- to pass the class. I had several who had to take the course over again. I heard from plenty of other faculty who wondered why I was incapable of teaching students to write specifically for their content area or their course and do so in 15 weeks, but that's a different topic.

I'm not surprised that remedial courses seem to have no long-term effect. I think it's likely they have little short-term effect. Depending on the structure of an institution's freshman year, especially for remediated students, what is supposed to help them be more successful is more likely to help them fail. And that's just wrong.

Sunday, July 6

Just Ramblin, No 7: Flip flops (politicians, not footwear)

When I was growing up, flip flops were a sandal-like shoe. A simple rubber contraption with a sole and a piece that came up from the sole, through the first two toes with a strip that extended from that center between-the-toes piece and connected on either side of your foot. And way too often if you hooked the tip of the flip flop under something, that between-the-toes piece would pop up through the sole, so you'd have to sit down and shove it back through. Simple and not remotely elegant, but servicable. Now you can spend up to $400 on a pair of flip flops which shouldn't be called flip flops if they cost more than $1.99. I mean, seriously.

For awhile we called them "slaps." That was on the beachside of the Melbourne, FL area. I think we called them slaps when we could them in a sort of straw material so they made a slapping sound. But maybe it was just because we called them that for no particular reason.

So now flip flops can be ridiculously expensive, available in nearly every color, available as platforms (what is that all about?), and appropriately (I use that word loosely) decorated for pedi day. Gag.

But the term "flip flop" has been appropriated by the fourth estate. To "flip flop" seems to be the most pejorative way to describe the changing of one's mind. A recent CNN poll indicates that voters think both presidential candidates flip flop. Shocking! Of course they do. Everyone flip flops. EVERYONE.

When was the last time you changed your mind about what you wanted to wear to work or out for some sort of event? You're a sartorial flip flopper! When was the last time you changed your mind about what you wanted to have for dinner? You're a gourmet flip flopper? When was the last time you realized that what you thought was true 20 years based on the information you had then was no longer true and you believed something else to be true? Ahh, you devious issues flip flopper!

Get a grip. Of course we change our minds over time. At least I hope we do. We learn more, we gather more information, we have more experience, we have seen more, we have discussed more, we have read more. Theoretically we have a broader and deeper view of the world. So if we change our minds, are we really flip flopping or are we simply maturing in the way we think and see the world?

Is there legitimate flip flopping? Once I stop giggling over the ridiculousness of the question, I suppose the answer is "yes." When a politician (and note I mean "politician," not "civil servant") seems to change his or her mind, it is likely because there is an ill wind blowing over his or her current position. So to make sure the majority of the constiuents, at least for the moment, aren't too ticked off, the politician establishes an erstwhile position based on that wind. Which means it's a surprise those folks don't get dizzy from all that flopping around on the issues.

But I say leave footwear out of this discussion. When a politician changes his or her mind legitimately because there is new information, better information, etc., then let the person change his or her mind and give that person opportunity to provide context. And when a politician makes a sudden shift of position because the old position wasn't popular with the voting public (or the media), call it what it is: opportunism and cowardice.