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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Charles Swift and Edwin Lewis

This afternoon, at the Dorchester Historical Society, historian Charles Swift gave a first-rate presentation to an overflow crowd about the famous-in-some-circles architect, Edwin J. Lewis Jr.; check out Swift’s summary in his blog, including four of his beautiful photos.


Friday, April 28, 2006

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

I often find that I’m in the midst of reading two books at once, especially if one is fiction and one is non-fiction. That’s what happened to me recently, finishing both Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith, in the same week. I discussed the former book in my preceding post; this post is about the latter.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is an engaging, good-humored mystery in the cozy tradition. It’s slow-paced, but in a very different way from another Smith novel that I reviewed on April 19, The Sunday Philosophy Club, which is contemplative and intellectual. The slow pace of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is more that of a relaxed, laid-back society, which contrasts nicely with the fast pace of the contemporary United States, especially in the northeast. Since it takes place in Botswana, and the setting is practically a character in its own right, the pace is an organic part of the book, not an artificial style adopted by the author.

As the first novel in a series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency devotes most of its pages to introducing the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, in the context of her friends, her community, and her nation. It almost makes the reader want to visit Botswana, to learn its language, to meet its people.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Just finished reading Freakonomics, the much-discussed popularization of applied statistics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, economist and writer respectively. Although Levitt won the Nobel Prize for Economics, this best-seller really is about “applied statistics” rather than economics. It’s also undeniably accessible to any moderately educated reader. It takes much less time to read than you would expect any book on either statistics or economics to take. It would be a better book if the reader could be expected to spend more time on it, as it feels dumbed down in its current state.

On the plus side, almost all of the case studies are interesting, ranging from the impact of radily available abortions to a cheating scandal by Chicago teachers (yes, teachers) to the minimal effect that parents can have on how their kids turn out. The mathematical arguments are clear and easy to follow. The political and social conclusions are clear and well-argued, although certainly not beyond question. And even though the book is about statistics more than economics, there is an economic theme that runs through the entire book as a common thread: the importance of incentives.

A concluding section on the impact of first names is particularly interesting, addressing not only the possible bias caused by certain names but also the history and future of the distribution of names.

There’s a lot of other intriguing material, mostly social and political rather than economic or mathematical — how the media and the politicians have spread incorrect information about crime rates, for instance. Questions of causality vs. correlation are raised in many places, though not always satisfactorily addressed. And therein lies the minus side of this book: Levitt and Dubner combine an incomplete discussion of causality with the superficiality that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

On balance, Freakonomics, is worth reading, and definitely worth thinking about, but it could have been a much stronger book.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Math and Magic

The Weston High School Math Club just returned from an enjoyable and informative talk on “Mathematics and Magic Tricks,” presented by Prof. Persi Diaconis of Stanford University and sponsored by the Clay Mathematics Institute. As always — well, as we did once before — a group of teachers and students had dinner together at the Royal East Restaurant and then walked over to MIT for the talk. Diaconis, who has a well-deserved reputation as an entertaining lecturer, began with a truly impressive magic trick that he had invented, and then proceeded to elucidate the mathematics behind it and some other applications of various related mathematical ideas. There were several fortuitous connections with what I happen to be teaching right now in my precalculus class — including polynomials, number systems, bases, periodic phenomena, and functions — and what my students have learned previously in other courses, such as cryptography and DNA. Although this series of talks claims to be aimed at “the public at large,” this particular one was at the upper edge of appropriateness for my honors students, and last year’s left them behind. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — stretching one’s mind is undeniably useful — but I challenge the description.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

To the Power of Three

Just finished listening to Laura Lippman’s To the Power of Three on audiobook. This post-Columbine mystery presents a school shooting that’s partly predictable but mostly not so, starting with the fact that the shooter is a girl and concluding with several surprises. Setting the event in a large public high school in a exurb of Baltimore, Lippman concentrates mostly on character development and evocation of place. There isn’t a whole lot of plot, and there doesn’t need to be. The descriptions of the community, the high school, and the main characters all ring true. Definitely worth reading — especially for anyone who works with teenagers in upper-middle-class suburban settings.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Rosengarten Report

I’ve been a subscriber to The Rosengarten Report for about a year now. I recommend it — with some reservations.

According to David Rosengarten, this is a “fiercely independent, passionately written newsletter on the best foods and wines in the world, all available overnight by mail order.” That’s pretty much true. He and his staff do elaborate testing of dozens of products of any particular type, and he does indeed write passionately about the results. The only downside is that his enthusiasm often goes overboard, so a particular item that sounds like the best thing since sliced bread may actually be not much better than adequate. For instance, Rosengarten raves about the unbaked Williams-Sonoma frozen croissants, which do taste good but turn out to be so laden with butter that it pools on the cookie sheet when the croissants are baked. (But maybe I got a bad batch. The trouble with shipping frozen foods is that they may not stay frozen.)

Anyway, despite my reservations, this newsletter does provide detailed information that you’re not likely to find anywhere else — at least not without extensive research for which no one has the time. It makes an interesting companion to Cook’s Illustrated, which tests in considerably greater depth (though less breadth). The big difference is that Rosengarten deals primarily with purchasing mail-order products, and Cook’s deals primarily with cooking. Cook’s is better, but really they are complementary and it is worth subscribing to both.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

The importance of blogging

“Blogging is good for your career,” said reporter Penelope Trunk in a Boston Globe article on April 16. This is a bit surprising, given all the stories about people who have been fired or not hired because of what they wrote in their blogs.

But Trunk is writing with a different point of view:
A well-executed blog sets you apart as an expert in your field.

...“For your career, a blog is essential,” says Phil van Allen, a faculty member of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

“It's the new public relations and it’s the new home page. Instead of a static home page, you have your blog,” he said. It’s a way to let people know what you are thinking about the field that interests you.

Employers regularly Google prospective employees to learn more about them. Blogging gives you a way to control what employers see, because Google’s system works in such a way that blogs that are heavily networked with others come up high in Google searches.
I wonder whether I can convince my students that this cuts both ways. They are all “prospective employees,” even if not imminently, and they need to know that blogging can work both for them and against them.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Separated by a common language

First I was told that Churchill said it. Then I was told that it was Wilde. But actually it was Shaw who described England and America as “two countries separated by a common language.”

Language is part of culture, so we’re also separated not only by a common language by also by a common culture. In both cases the differences are striking and interesting. The following observations are based on a mere week in England, so take them with several grains of salt — although I did spend several weeks in England several decades ago, for what that’s worth.
  • Everybody’s whining about gas prices in the U.S., but petrol in England was up to a pound per litre on my last day there, and that works out to about seven dollars per gallon. Frankly, that’s a good thing, as it discourages driving.

  • This ad appeared in many Underground stations and elsewhere:

  • Fortunately our gracious hostess was willing to drive us around everywhere, so we didn’t have to cope with driving on the wrong side of the road. After a year in England, she has gotten used to it. The roundabouts (rotaries) were my principal worry — well, actually, they were #2. It was making a right turn that always seemed the worst. There was also this concept of “mini-roundabouts” or virtual roundabouts, as I liked to call them. Imagine an ordinary T-intersection with a circle painted in the middle of it; the circle makes it a virtual roundabout, which changes the right-of-way rules so that whoever is “in” in the virtual roundabout has the right of way, instead of the usual rules.

  • Despite all the influences of American culture, the Brits still seem to queue up more often than we do. Probably not as much as 40 years ago, but still...

  • It’s not clear what the situation is with the double-decker buses. My guidebook claimed that they are a thing of the past. A report on NPR claimed the same. But there they were, all around London. Hmm...

  • There were security cameras everywhere. I suppose it’s a reaction to the terrorist attacks in the London Underground a year ago. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me, and I din’t feel that my privacy was being invaded.
Food and drink:
  • Food was definitely much better than I had expected. We had to try the ubiquitous fish and chips, which wasn’t bad, and most of the other meals were downright good.

  • But there were chips with everything (sounds like the title of a play); even an Asian or Greek meal that came with rice was also accompanied by chips (“half and half”).

  • Surprisingly, almost every restaurant we went to offered at least one vegetarian entree, usually marked with a V.

  • Also surprisingly, many of the restaurants were totally non-smoking, and most of the others had non-smoking sections. At the end of this calendar year the entire country is going non-smoking in restaurants and bars, following Ireland’s example.

  • Coffee is still bad in most restaurants — usually instant. But Starbucks is everywhere, and many restaurants and cafes are serving excellent brewed coffee.

  • We had an excellent Asian meal in London — mostly dim sum — at Yauatcha, an Asian restaurant with a Japanese ambience but mostly Chinese food.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006


We’re staying at 22 York Street, a lovely B&B just off Baker Street in London. Of course it’s foolish to try to make a dent in the to-do list when one has only a short stay in London, but we did enjoy the little we were able to see. This was my fourth time in London, but it was Barbara’s first.

We started out at New London Architecture, which provided a huge scale model of all of London along with an overview of architecture around the city (not to be confused with The City).

Otherwise, museums were the highlight:
The Wallace Collection (the museum, not the band) was new to both of us, but the British Museum was an old friend of mine. I had to revisit the Egyptian Collection, especially the Rosetta Stone, as they were the source of a life-changing experience for me, kindling my interest in ancient Egypt and my decision to study the Middle Egyptian language, best known for its writing system (hieroglyphics) and holding a continuing fascination for me for the past 38 years.

The newly renovated British Library provided a couple of first-rate exhibits, one on the history of printing and another containing many dozens of historically important books from around the world.

We tried to see the Jewish Museum, but unfortunately I had forgotten that it was still Passover, so they were closed. Sigh.

The National Gallery was of course much too large to see, so we contented ourselves primarily with the Impressionists and related artists: Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Seurat, and the like.

No time for either Tate or for the V&A, unfortunately.
A totally amazing structure next to St. Pancras Station is currently being renovated. Check it out the next time you’re in London.

Since we’re in London, we couldn’t pass up going to theatre at least once. We saw Smaller, starring Dawn French, a black comedy about all-too-familiar family dynamics. Reasonably good. A bit predictable, but that’s because it’s so true-to-life.

We also met up with our Norwegian friend Elin, who was coincidentally in London at the same time as we were. She shot a lot of photos, including this one of me.

Since we’re staying right by the Baker Street station on the Underground, we though of paying a small visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum and to Regent’s Park. We changed our mind about the former, since the description made it clear that it wasn’t worth the $11 admission, but we did enjoy our walk in the lovely Regent’s Park.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Sunday Philosophy Club

Just finished reading The Sunday Philosophy Club, by Alexander McCall Smith. This quirky mystery isn’t for everybody, as it’s more an exploration of applied philosophy than a mystery novel. Complete with an explicit reference to Sissela Bok’s Lying, it creates a fictional world in which the issues of that non-fiction work are instantiated. The setting in contemporary Edinburgh is interesting enough, and there is definitely a murder, along with a leisurely and sporadic investigation. But the solution to the crime is definitely an afterthought. So don’t read it for the mystery; read it if you want to think about the philosophical implications of truth-telling and lying.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Market Harborough and environs

Barbara and I are in England right now, visiting our Dorchester friend Ardis, whose company has sent her to Market Harborough for a period of over a year. She volunteered to be our kind chauffeur, so we don’t have to cope with driving on the wrong side of the road. So far we’ve gone to Cambridge (see previous post), Burghley House, and Rockingham Castle (see below).

Ardis characterizes Market Harborough as the Wellesley of England — an apt description, enhanced by a feature that Wellesley doesn’t have: the Grand Union Canal. Ardis lives right at a marina on the canal, so she took us and five of her English friends on a day-long leisurely voyage in a narrowboat along a bit of the canal. In order to fit into the locks, these boats are only seven feet wide, although some are as much as 72 feet long! (We rented a 28-footer.) The reason that I say “leisurely” and “a bit” is that the boat moves very slowly; we were able to get off periodically and walk alongside on the towpath, easily keepii=ng up with the boat. We went as far as the fascinating Foxton Locks, where the change in canal level is so dramatic that ten consecutive locks are necessary. I wore my map jacket, which engendered a lot of interest among random passersby, including a man from India who was excited to find that his home city of Thiruvananthapuram was right there in the middle of my back. (Don’t ask me to pronounce it.)

Unlike Wellesley, Market Harborough also has about a dozen charity shops where one can buy used items cheap, and all for a good cause: Oxfam, Cancer Research, etc.; I suppose that’s because the regular prices in England are about double what they are in the U.S. these days.

Burghley House was well worth the journey. This unassuming country house features over a hundred rooms and a castle-like appearance. Most of what we saw dated from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, so we were startled to see a photo there that was shot in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1927. It turned out that a relatively recent Burghley — David Cecil — won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1928 Olympics, and the photo showed him at a track meet the previous year in which he competed for Cambridge against Oxford, Harvard, and Yale. One of the characters in Chariots of Fire was based on Lord Burghley.

Market Harborough is in the Midlands, a quick one-hour train trip from London. Everywhere you look there are sheep, rolling hills, more sheep, and more rolling hills — along with a surprising wind farm at one point. On the outskirts of Market Harborough we visited Rockingham Castle. It boggles the mind that this building was actually the work of William the Conqueror, and is a private home today! Here in the U.S. a hundred-year-old house is considered old. The place was packed with tourists, including many families with kids. Some of the kids were a bit confused by the introductory video — which included simulated newscasts from 1066, the British Civil War, and other important events — and by the wax figures that represented a prisoner and a kitchen worker.


Monday, April 17, 2006

The other Cambridge

Barbara and I spent the day with our host, Ardis, visiting the other Cambridge — you know, the one in England. Seeing 600-year-old buildings still in active use and walking in the footsteps of Isaac Newton never cease to astonish. Unfortunately Trinity College was closed, but we got to see King’s, Queens’, and St. John’s. (Be sure to get those apostrophes right!)

For quite a while we watched — but never tried — punting. It’s clearly harder than it first looks, as only the experienced punters were successful: the amateurs kept running into other punts and the shoreline. And of course we had to walk across the Mathematical Bridge.

Aside from the University, the other two interesting tidbits about the city were an unusually good lunch served to us by a Polish waitress at a Greek restaurant (which of course also served Indian food), and an excellent Arts and Crafts Fair, where Barbara couldn’t resist buying a hard-carved wooden bowl.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

By a Spider's Thread

Just finished listening to By a spider’s thread, by Laura Lippman, on audiobook. Although it poses as a detective novel or mystery novel — or at least is so positioned by its publisher, Avon — it doesn’t really fit the genre very well. There is a private investigator, but there’s almost no mystery and no significant murder, and the author never gives the reader any clues to the one true surprise in the novel. Not that any of this makes it a bad book — far from it. It’s just that it’s going to disappoint readers who are looking for a traditional mystery.

Lippman’s novel is essentially an exploration of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, along with two generations of descendants, with a range of Jewishness from totally unobservant to orthodox. The author achieves convincing character development in a short time span, because our understanding of the characters changes as we view them through the eyes of the detective, half-Irish and half-Jewish Tess Monaghan. Although it’s not a particularly fast-moving novel, Lippman maintains sufficient suspense as we learn what’s really going on and what the back story is. Recommended.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Too much in your inbox?

Thanks to Diane Greco for pointing out this series of articles on “the skills, tools, and attitude needed to empty your email inbox — and then keep it that way.” Now all I have to do is implement the advice.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The sociology of model railroading

It takes a certain kind of person to be interested in the sociology of model railroading...


Monday, April 10, 2006


Can this really be true?
George W. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover who has no Jews in his cabinet at all and has appointed no Jews to the Federal bench.

— Professor Sherman L. Cohn, Georgetown University Law Center


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Hip hop fo' Hebrews, and three cheers for Goths

Thanks to sashinka for these two links:


Saturday, April 08, 2006


Yesterday I saw Weston High School’s production of Urinetown. It was exceptionally well done, with excellent acting, singing, and dancing, as well as a first-rate performance by the tiny orchestra in the pit. Time flew by, and the two-and-a-quarter hours felt like half that. And yet...and yet...I don’t like the musical. There are occasionally amusing take-offs on other musicals, ranging from West Side Story to Fiddler on the Roof to Les Mis to Chicago, but it’s all just too post-modern, too cynical, too ironic, and too disrespectful for my tastes. Maybe I was just in a bad mood.


Friday, April 07, 2006


I’m almost done reading Tilt-A-Whirl, by Chris Grabenstein. With a few pages left to go, I confidently recommend this novel enthusiastically. The character who narrates the story in the first person is a young, part-time cop in a summer-tourist community on the Jersey shore. His distinctive voice is perhaps the best thing about this work. A random example:
I don’t have much besides coffee at breakfast. I’m usually lugging around the chicken wings or mozzarella sticks or raw oysters I ate the night before.

Most of the booths and tables near us are filled with local shopkeepers fueling up for another day of selling trinkets and taffy. But there are a few tourist families scattered here and there — the ones with hyper kids who’d never let mom and dad sleep in on a Saturday, changeover day or not. The ones who fling their forks at each other and topple sippy cups and steal their sister’s crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu and help Princess Griddlecakes escape from Margarine Mountain.

At least that’s who’s sitting in the booth next to ours.

Behind Ceepak’s head, I see two monsters bouncing up and down on the banquette, a boy and girl standing so they can pour syrup out of sticky bottles and soak their plates three feet below. I think they’re playing airplane.

I anticipate a sugar-rush hurricane will hit the table in under five.

“Someone stole a tricycle this morning,” Ceepak says.


He checks his notebook, I guzzle coffee. He’s raring to go; my engine isn’t even primed.

“From a residence over on Rosewood,” he says. “Chrome-colored three-wheeler. Valued at $350.”

“Three hundred and fifty dollars? For a tricycle?”

“Roger that. It was stolen right off the folks’ front porch. Call came in at 0630.”

Did I mention — Ceepak has a police scanner in his apartment?
In general, this is a fast-paced mystery, with a title that describes not only the amusement park ride where the victim is killed but also the structure of the book. And I can’t help mentioning that Grabenstein even draws a mathematical connection with the ride of the title:
I remember this day in math class.

We’d all seen Jurassic Park hundreds of times and were asking for an explanation of the “Chaos Theory” Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician character kept yammering about when he really should have been keeping an eye peeled for dinosaurs. Our teacher quoted this article by a guy named Ivars Peterson and told us about the Tilt-A-Whirl and its geometry of a circular platform with cars that pivot freely along a track of hills and how, if the operator keeps the whole thing going at the proper speed of 6.5 revolutions per minute, it’s practically impossible to predict what will happen next as you spin around and around and around.

The teacher called it “mind-jangling unpredictability.” Chaos Theory in action, for two tickets a ride.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Big Picture Curriculum Day

Today was the assigned date for the Math Department’s Big Picture Curriculum Day, which meant a full-day workshop with no math classes. Although we were not thrilled about having to miss two consecutive days of math classes — especially troublesome for the AP teachers, with the exams coming up soon — it was an essential, useful, and successful event. The last time we took a step back and examined our entire 9–12 math curriculum was eight years ago, so it was time to meet again. Weston is one of a minority of schools in which each year is divided into four or five big units rather than a large number of small ones; this system encourages us to focus on depth over breadth, making it unlikely that we will fall into the “mile-wide but inch-deep” trap encouraged by the MCAS.

We reaffirmed our commitment to the four-big-units philosophy, but we are proposing quite a few changes. These changes will help bring us into the 21st Century, will improve the sequence of topics (include the reinforcement of skills), and will tighten up some of the bloat that inevitably infects any curriculum after two many years. (We teachers always want to add topics, but we never want to drop anything.) We’re following up the workshop with two additional days at the end of June; stay tuned for the outcome, since of course the devil is in the details.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Career Day

Just completed another successful Career Day at Weston High School. We started with keynote speakers: Barry and Eliot of Jordan’s Furniture — actually only Eliot, as Barry didn’t show up — or maybe it was Eliot who didn’t show up — it’s hard to keep them straight — anyway, the first keynote speaker was Eliot (or Barry, as the case may be), and the second was comedian Jim Mendrinos. Both were quite good, aimed their presentations appropriately at their audience, and made compatible points, though with very different vehicles.

After the keynotes we had four consecutive breakout sessions, split among an amazing range of speakers — probably close to 200 by my estimate, and representing about as wide a range of careers as you could imagine. I was assigned to sessions with Internet pioneer Wes Kussmaul, realtor Amy Mizner, and drummer Chris Ravelli, all of whom were interesting speakers. Because there were so many speakers, it was possible to have intimate sessions with ten or twelve students in each. All the presenters gave glimpses into careers, necessarily disparate but with some common themes. From talking with other teachers and with students, it’s clear that the most common theme was that doing what you love is more important than making lots of money, a message worth hearing in wealthy Weston.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

What is probability?

We’re having a small disagreement here concerning just what probability is. One colleague claims that it’s an indication of belief: if I say that there’s a 30% probability of rain, then that means that I believe that there are about three chances in ten that it will rain.

I contend that probability is empirical. If it rains on 30% of the days on which I had predicted a 30% chance of rain, then my predictions were pretty good. Belief has nothing to do with it. If it turns out that it rains on half of such days, then my statement was incorrect, but that’s no different from someone who says that the sine of 30° is 2. Belief doesn’t enter into it; both statements were simply wrong.

Presumably we’re not talking here about straightforward theoretical probability, as when we say that the chances of rolling a sum of three on two standard dice is two out of 36.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Not too much eye contact

I wonder how many Weston students would want to go to Pensacola Christian College. Check out the fascinating article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reports an interesting set of written and unwritten rules:
At Pensacola any physical contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden... The forbidden contact includes shaking hands...

Of Pensacola’s many rules, those dealing with male-female relationships are the most talked about. There are restrictions on when and where men and women may speak to each other. Some elevators and stairwells may be used only by women; others may be used only by men. Socializing on particular benches is forbidden. If a man and a woman are walking to class, they may chat; if they stop en route, though, they may be in trouble. Generally men and women caught interacting in any “unchaperoned area” — which is most of the campus — could be subject to severe penalties.

Those rules extend beyond the campus. A man and a woman cannot go to an off-campus restaurant together without a chaperon (usually a faculty member). Even running into members of the opposite sex off campus can lead to punishment. One student told of how a group of men and a group of women from the college happened to meet at a McDonald’s last spring. Both groups were returning from the beach (they had gone to separate beaches; men and women are not allowed to be at the beach together). The administration found out, and all 15 students were expelled.

Even couples who are not talking or touching can be reprimanded. Sabrina Poirier, a student at Pensacola who withdrew in 1997, was disciplined for what is known on the campus as “optical intercourse” — staring too intently into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex. This is also referred to as “making eye babies.”
No comment.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Too much homework in fifth grade?

What’s happening with the lives of fifth-graders these days? Too many of my Saturday Course students have lives that are completely filled with homework, sports, music lessons, and all sorts of other activities. I suppose most of those have been going on for decades, but the homework burden seems to be increasing every year throughout the 16 years that I’ve taught Saturday Course. Is this just my imagination? Is this the result of No Child Left Behind? Should fifth-graders really be overwhelmed with homework obligations?



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