Monday, December 31, 2007
The attitudes toward French cuisine are also convincing. We have the snooty food critic who desperately wants to write a negative review but in the end is too honest to do so. (The French may be corrupt in other regards, but not about food.) We have the recently deceased chef who demeaned his profession by placing his name on popularized frozen foods (sound familiar?) and by writing a book (in English, of course) called Anyone Can Cook. OK, that seems to contradict my claim about French attitudes toward cooking, except that it explains why Gousteau (hmmm...) is dead and why his book is in English. And, of course, we have our hero, the rat Rémy, who knows the importance of every herb and of correct presentation. He can even turn a humble peasant dish (ratatouille, of course) into a gourmet success.
So go out and rent the DVD. It’s not just for kids.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Freed from its Episcopal roots, the Chapel School has a student body that is now self-consciously diverse, being 50% Jewish and 25% “minority students” on scholarship. The remaining 25% are mostly wealthy WASPs. Everyone wants to go to the very best colleges, and there is tremendous pressure to get into Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. The premise of the story is simple: the head of the Guidance Department is found murdered, and the mother of one student figures out whodunit in the classic tradition of the amateur detective. O’Connor writes in a humorous but never silly tone, making the book fun to read. Many of the characters are teenagers, so of course there’s some of the required sex and drugs, but not to the point of unbelievability. And even the slightly sensationalistic aspect of the material is relevant to the characters and the plot; no reader will think it’s gratuitous. It’s not Weston High School, but that’s only because the Manhattan setting is integral to the story. Otherwise, even though Dangerous Admissions takes place in a private school, it might as well be Weston.
The fact that the amateur detective is a copy editor makes the book even more delicious in my eyes. Fortunately Dangerous Admissions itself has been meticulously copy-edited, unusually so among current paperbacks; it would be too ironic if it had not been. Rannie Bookman, the appropriately named protagonist, keeps resisting the impulse to correct misplaced modifiers and the like. I appreciate that (the impulse, if not the resistance).
Needless to say, I highly recommend this novel. Go read it!
Friday, December 28, 2007
Adventures at Microcenter
“The Seagate is over here,” he replies, and takes me to one corner; “and the Maxtor is over here” halfway across the room. These are both 320GB drives, both on sale for $89.95, so I start to read the specs more closely. “If you’re going to use this with Leopard for Time Machine,” adds the salesman, “you should definitely pick the Maxtor.”
The question, of course, is why a salesman in the PC section of a predominantly PC-oriented store would make this assumption — which in fact was correct — rather than the default assumption in the case of a drive that works with both operating systems. Do I just look like a Mac user?
Then, as I’m waiting in line (or “on line” as I grew up saying, but now that means something else), a different salesman from way over the other end of the store in Tech Support land comes running up to me and tries to get my attention. “What did I do wrong?” is all I could think. Is there something wrong with my purchase? But no, he just wants to ask where I got such a cool jacket!
This jacket does indeed get me attention everywhere I go. And maybe it explains why I look like a Mac user.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Quadratic equations will help Dorchester!
That doesn’t help, I hear you say.
So listen up, and you’ll hear about a real-life application of quadratic relations with hyperbolic graphs, and you’ll see why it’s important to Dorchester. First of all, media coverage of Dorchester always seems to emphasize the number of shootings and stabbings here, almost always blurring the distinctions among neighborhoods... but that’s not what this post is about, so let’s not go off on that tangent. Anyway, the police report on a shooting yesterday included the following remarks:
This morning at approximately 1:21am, officers from District B-2 responded to the area of 206 Blue Hill Avenue based on the sound of gunshot detected by the ShotSpotter system.Ignoring the misplaced modifier (surely the officers weren’t the ones who were treated on-scene), we note the reference to ShotSpotter. On Universal Hub you can read a brief discussion of the specific incident and the possible effectiveness of this technology, but here I just want to say something about the mathematics involved. For about three months, Boston has been using ShotSpotter to provide almost instantaneous detection of gunshots in high-crime neighborhoods. In addition to the interesting engineering going on in distinguishing gunshots from other sounds, ShotSpotter uses second-degree quadratic relations in the form of ax2 + bxy + cy2 + dx + ey + f = 0; when b2–4ac > 0, the graph of such a relation turns out to be a hyperbola. By precisely timing how long it takes the sound of the shot to reach each of three detectors (and knowing the speed of sound during current weather conditions), a computer can calculate three different hyperbolic paths and can determine that the gunshot occurred at the unique intersection of all three. Then the nearest police officers can be immediately dispatched to the correct location. If this technology continues to fulfill its promise, we will have quicker responses to shootings in Dorchester and other Boston neighborhoods, sometimes quick enough to arrest a shooter — and quicker responses will presumably lead to reducing the number of such shootings. Stay tuned...
On arrival, bystanders informed officers that there was a male lying on the ground suffering from a stab wound. The victim, a 22 year-old male, was found on the sidewalk in front of 203 Blue Hill Ave. suffering from what appeared to be stab wound. Officers immediately requested an ambulance to the scene to treat the victim. While being treated on-scene, officers learned that the victim was suffering from a single gunshot wound and not a stab wound.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Cheating and imaginary property, Part One
Pogue reluctantly acknowledges that the issues aren’t as clear-cut as he had once thought:
Readers fired back with an amazingly intelligent array of counterexamples: situations where duplicating a CD or DVD may be illegal, but isn’t necessarily wrong. They led me down a garden path of exceptions, proving that what seemed so black-and-white to me is a spectrum of grays.As a result, he concocted a whole spectrum of cases, ranging from borrowing a CD from the library — Hands up if you think that’s wrong! What? Nobody? — to making a personal backup copy of a disc that you’ve bought all the way to the aforementioned illegal download — Hands up if you think that one’s wrong.
I would expect to see a lot of hands this time. So did Pogue, who generally sees more and more hands raised as his cases get more and more questionable. But, he reports, a recent audience of 500 college students produced only two who agreed that it was wrong to make an illegal download of a copyrighted movie for which they hadn’t paid! What’s up with that? Pogue assumes that it’s a generational divide, and maybe he’s right. Probably the issue extends far beyond intellectual property to other forms of cheating. A reader named Bill Shepherd posted an interesting comment on Pogue’s article:
It’s not just music and movies. I used to teach a college course. One day I stepped out of the room while they were taking a test. Later in the day I received a couple of reports from disgruntled students, saying that as soon as I left, a number of people pulled out cheat sheets and opened textbooks in broad daylight. You might think the reporters were showing moral backbone, but it turned out that most of them were more concerned that they would be penalized by the cheating of others, not that the others were cheating per se.This anecdote is no surprise to me. It’s why I no longer give take-home tests. In fact, I am astonished that there are any universities left that still give unproctored exams, though there clearly are some — like Princeton, where “students trust each other enough to proctor their own exams.” And of course there was the famous 2001 cheating scandal at the University of Virginia, which has had an honor code even longer than Princeton: “Under trees and on benches, on a beautiful spring day, lone figures scrawled their answers in blue books, with teachers trusting that students would not peek into textbooks, steal solutions from the Internet or seek help from friends,” according to a New York Times article.
The course? Ethics.
So, what does all this have to do with technology? The common answer, which I suspect is correct, is that technology has made it so much easier to cheat that many more people do it. And then they think it’s OK. Sure, there’s no logical connection that would say it’s more ethical because it’s easier, but that’s probably the reality. The most recent cheating episode at Weston High School illustrates the point: seniors taking a proctored test surreptitiously used their cell phones to text their friends (who were in the cafeteria or elsewhere) and get help on specific questions. Teenagers all seem to be able to touch-type on their phones, so they can appear to be looking at their own test papers, and a mere glance at the phone later on would be enough to read the answer. Surely some of these students thought their actions were wrong, but just as surely most of them didn’t think so, and it was merely the technological ease that let them cheat; old-fashioned methods would be either too cumbersome or too liable to be caught. Strict enforcement of the ban on cell phones in classrooms is the current solution, but that’s not going to change hearts and minds.
More on this issue later on...
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Match Point, which deserves to be ranked with Allen’s Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Everyone Says I Love You, has a terrible fascination that lasts all the way through. We can see a little way ahead, we can anticipate some of the mistakes and hazards, but the movie is too clever for us, too cynical.I guess it’s too bad that I didn’t watch the whole thing, but the first half sure didn’t seem to be to be in the same league as Annie Hall or Manhattan.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Trees and rocks
- Trees are tall. Yeah, I know, that’s obvious. But until I got out and really looked at trees that are next to houses, I never truly realized that most of them tower over the houses. Trees on model railroads don’t look right because they aren’t tall enough. (On the other hand, the viewer’s eye is at a different level when standing on a street compared to looking at a model railroad.)
- Rocks are some undescribable combo of gray and brown. I can’t yet figure out how to make them look realistic, but it quickly became clear that I needed to look closely at actual rocks.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Dorchester Open Studios
I highly recommend visiting Dorchester Open Studios when it comes around again next year. This year’s event was well worth seeing, though Barbara and I only got to visit a fraction of the over-100 studios that were open. Among others, we did get to see Marcia Sewall, Vince Crotty, Joe Wheelwright, and Celia McDonough; and we even bought a couple of small works by Crotty and McDonough.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Harry Potter movie #5
Sigh. The movie of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix turned out to be a disappointing mess. I had carefully avoided all reviews beforehand, but maybe they would have warned me. Usually I read Ebert before choosing to see a movie, but of course there’s no choice in the case of Harry Potter; I knew I was going to see it anyway.
Actually, now that I read Roger Ebert’s review, I am convinced that he missed the main flaw in the film. Ebert focused on the unexpectedly dark tone, but that wasn’t what bothered me. Without discussing it with each other, Meredith and I independently reached the same conclusion: of course a huge amount had to be omitted in order to transform a long novel into a film, but so much was chopped out that the plot became completely incoherent. As a result, no one’s motivation was clear. Maybe the filmmakers assumed that everyone has read the book anyway, but that’s no way to make a movie. It needs to stand on its own, and this one didn’t. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon Magazine calls it “perfectly satisfying.” Feh. I’m looking forward to a better job of #6 and #7.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Is 85% a B? Grading by percentages is not the way to go
Actually, I just made up that 89% figure. But it’s probably in the right ballpark, and it makes just as much sense as the common belief about the meaning of that 89%: obviously a high B, and very close to an A–. Now I suppose that I could devise a test in which a student who earned 89% of the available points really was doing work at the top of the B range — maybe. But devising such a test would be ridiculously time-consuming, and the validity of its results would be highly questionable anyway. In reality, if the objective quality of a student’s work was at the top of the Bs, s/he might get a 92 on one test and a 79 on another, depending on the difficulty of the questions.
So what do most teachers do? There seem to be three solutions to this problem:
- Use percentages anyway, and live with the questionable validity.
- Grade on a curve.
- Use your professional judgment to determine an appropriate scale.
What about option #2 then? Grading on a curve ensures that the teacher can ask challenging questions and still ensure that the median grade is a B– (or any desired median grade, as the case may be). But it results in a whole host of undesirable and probably undesired consequences. In particular, it discourages cooperative learning by pitting one student against another, and it makes the incorrect assumption that all groups of students are equivalent. In reality, all teachers know that it's perfectly possible — by the luck of the draw or the vagaries of the master schedule, where honors chemistry meets at the same time as one math class and conceptual chemistry meets at the same time as another — for the majority of one class to deserve As and the majority of another to deserve Cs. In the former case, grading on a curve unfairly gives excellent students low grades, and in the latter case it unfairly gives mediocre or poor students decent grades. Clearly not the way to go.
So we must go with option #3. It clearly allows for challenging questions and variations in the distribution of student populations. This choice in turn branches into three sub-options: determining a scale in advance, determining a scale after looking at students’ raw scores, and determining a scale after looking at student work. Combinations of these three are also possible.
Determining a scale in advance has certain attractions: principally, it keeps the teacher honest by preventing excessive generosity when student results are disappointing. Ideally I think this is the way to go, but it also requires unrealistic amounts of forethought and accuracy in predicting what good students will do; I like it in theory, but I have had to abandon it in practice. Going through each problem and deciding in advance how many points a B student is likely to earn feels too much like guessing.
The second sub-option, determing a scale after looking at the raw scores, is deservedly popular with many teachers, and it's what most of my colleagues and I have done with final exams for decades. It lets one draw lines between the As and the Bs, between the Ds and the Fs, and so forth, without regard to raw percentages and conscientiously avoiding excessive harshness or excessive generosity. But it still tends to even out the true differences in populations, so I’m not convinced by it.
My choice is the third sub-option, looking at student work in order to determine the scale. This is what we’ve been encouraged to do at Weston, and I’m sold on the idea. Based on research and recommendations of the Annenberg Foundation, Harvard Project Zero, and others, it takes the most time but has the biggest payoff. The idea is to determine raw scores first without regard to letter grades, and then to examine in detail a reasonable sample of student papers. For instance, sort them by raw scores and then pick three from the middle of the pack, three around the third quartile, and three around the first quartile; go through them problem by problem, and use professional judgment to determine whether those students have “got it” or not. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out conceptual misunderstandings from skill-based errors, but it’s always informative. In this way, we can make an informed decision that says that on this particular test a raw score of 68 is worth a low B. And on another test it might be an 79. In this way it’s possible to give truly challenging problems, while assigning fair and meaningful grades for them. I think it’s a clear win all the way around — except for the fact that it takes more time for the teacher, as do many good ideas.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Some Like it Hot-buttered
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Sacks considers that his literary style follows the tradition of 19th-century “clinical anecdotes”, a literary-style [sic] that included informal case histories, following the writings of Alexander Luria.This style is both the strength and the weakness of Musicophilia. On the one hand, it lends concreteness and interest for the reader. On the other hand, it runs the risk of substituting random anecdotal evidence for serious scientific study.
The premise of this book is immediately intriguing. The brain processes music in many ways, both cognitive and emotional, so it shouldn’t be surprising that neurological disorders would affect musical skills, interest in music, and ability to respond to music. In his usual manner, Sacks weaves dozens of real-life stories through his narrative, occasionally touching on the abstract but usually focusing on the specifics of his cases. Along the way we pick up a lot of fascinating if disjointed information about absolute pitch, musical savants, Williams Syndrome, synaesthesia, epilepsy, music therapy, Tourette’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s, depression, hallucinations, etc., etc. — a rich smorgasbord of every aspect of brain science that might touch on music. It’s enjoyable and informative, so do read it. But just don’t expect a scientific treatise with statistically valid data!
Monday, December 17, 2007
Too many applications, too little time
Dear Ms. Jones,Names have been changed to protect the innocent. But the tone, the dates, and the quantity of applications have unfortunately not been changed. I would like to think that this is some sort of record — in various ways — but it probably isn’t.
Here are my recommendation forms. I am applying to 28 colleges. All the forms and envelopes are here. Please send them in before Dec. 25.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Model railroading at museums
If it’s an art, you should see it in museums, right? Well, I almost saw it in a museum today — and if it weren’t for the storm, I would have. But there was no way I was going to drive to Lexington at midday today. Our excellent National Heritage Museum was sponsoring an unfortunately timed model railroad exhibit sponsored by the HUB Division of the National Model Railroad Association. But I missed it.
Of course I could console myself by assuming that it probably wasn’t very good anyway. There’s at least some evidence to support this sour-grapes theory: as I reported last year, I was disappointed by their 2006 show in Marlborough. But my complaint about that one was that it was too commercial, and it seemed likely that one at the National Heritage Museum wouldn’t be. Oh, well.
But I’ve been to three other model railroad shows this year that were (at least partially) successful from my point of view. One showed model railroading as a hobby, one as a craft, and one as an art. Let’s start with the hobby first. Greenberg’s Train and Toy Show is a 30-year-old tradition that ropes in the whole family by not limiting themselves to model railroads (as you can tell from the name). This was my first visit — on November 18 in Wilmington, MA — and I was pleasantly surprised. Although there was a lot of junk, and too many tables were selling the same merchandise, there were also several high-quality layouts and a few choice vendors. It was definitely worth going to, as long as I was willing to invest a few hours to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Next comes the craft. The New England Prototype Modelers Meet — on June 3 in Collinsville, CT — was very impressive, but unfortunately over my head. No problem with chaff here! Just the opposite: I was clearly an amateur among professionals. There was amazing attention to detail, as you can see from the photo gallery. I can hold out this level of craft as an ideal, but I’ll never come close to it.
Finally, model railroading as art. The DeCordova Museum in Lincoln is hosting an elaborate exhibit called Trainscape, in which 12 artists created original works of art, all interacting with and linked by a fully functioning model railroad that passes through them:
Trainscape addresses a vital issue in the art of the early twenty-first century. Currently, many artists are actively engaged in the creation of imaginary worlds, not only with sculpture and installations, but also with painting, drawing, and photography. This impulse reflects philosophical ruminations about alternate realities, escape from the current world situation, and the use of place as an emotionally expressive device. A major theme within this exploration of parallel universes is a wide expansion of the idea of landscape sculpture (as opposed to the far more familiar “landscape painting”). Trainscape presents many alternative worlds, united only by the physical — and often conceptual — presence of the trains that travel throughout the exhibition.Certainly their words, not mine, and surely not the way most of us think of model railroading, but it dramatically emphasizes the idea of miniature worlds and alternative representations. It’s there only through January 18, so be sure to go soon!
The use of a miniature railroad enables DeCordova Museum to effectively present twelve separate works of contemporary installation art in a limited space, and to allow these works to be considered both separately and in juxtaposition. The miniature is also the perceptual cousin to the colossal. Tiny objects and images demand close examination, so that they fill one’s optical field in much the same way as very large visual phenomena. This close looking at small things allows for deep mental immersion as well. Trainscape thus provides enveloping journeys to cities, mountains, deserts, technological landscapes, and places of pure imagination.
Labels: model railroads
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Although I was intrigued from the get-go, when I started watching the DVD I was initially reserved in my enthusiasm, because the first half hour or so of Helvetica is a paean to that particular typeface, which I don’t much like. (Note the rarity of it in this blog, though I do offer a small concession by putting my headings in Helvetica.) I was worried that the rest of the film would continue in its unvarnished one-sidedness, hitting the viewer over the head with the claim that the ubiquity of Helvetica is due to the fact that it’s the solution to all font problems, the font that can be used everywhere. But fortunately it turned out that there was a healthy balance of opinion, including quite a number of articulate remarks by designers who refuse to see Helvetica as the be-all and end-all, ranging from sensible traditionalists to off-the-wall grunge fans.
Of course the issue isn’t really which font you prefer. (Some people even like Comic Sans, after all.) The real issue is whether you want typography to say something or whether you want it to be transparent. That question is explored well in Helvetica, though the bias is still quite clearly in favor of Helvetica in particular and transparency in general. I suppose my position is somewhere in between: I don’t want typography to disappear from consciousness altogether, but I certainly do want it to help the content shine through.
Friday, December 14, 2007
The subtitle is “Love, sex, and survival at a New England prep school,” but don’t blame the authors for the publisher’s sensationalism. The real question is whether the overall balance of this gossipy book presents a fair picture of student life at Milton Academy. Maybe it does, but I’m skeptical. I am willing to believe the authors’ claim that they did extensive research, interviewing dozens of students. But a fair and balanced portrayal wouldn’t make a very exciting book, and my inclination is to guess that Jones and Miley opted for the dramatic over the statistically valid. That’s a perfectly fair approach, of course...for a work of fiction: you need drama in order to tell a dramatic tale. But Restless Virgins is a work of non-fiction (or so it says), and it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of statistical validity. We also, of course, have no way of knowing what was changed, in addition to the students’ names.
I have no real evidence to support my skepticism. How could I? But the burden of proof lies with the authors, not with the reader. According to an article in the Boston Globe:
But at least two of the seven subjects profiled have raised questions about the methods used by the authors and about the results. The two girls, who are now halfway through college, say they feel misled and betrayed. Though they did talk about sex with the authors, they say they also talked at length of teachers, classes, sports, college applications — all of which play a minor role in the book.The January ’05 “hockey scandal” to which she refers was the impetus for the book, but the authors provide very little context or background. (Five male hockey players were expelled and charged with statutory rape for “persuading” a sophomore girl to have oral sex with them in the locker room, one after another.) I suppose the overall intent of the authors is to claim that a climate of casual sex and exploitation of girls led to the event. It might be so, but they don’t really make their case.
The authors, who obtained signed releases from the participants, stand by their work. “We were direct, clear, and open about the subject of Restless Virgins,” authors Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley said in an e-mail. They say their intent was to write “a compassionate and concerned examination of what it’s like to be a girl and a guy in high school today.”
The scenes in the book are sensationalized and distorted, says [one] girl, who just finished her sophomore year at an Ivy League school. “I was definitely under the impression that it would be tasteful, appropriate, academic, more like a sociological study. It’s a sexualized version of events they chose to show. I feel extremely stupid for talking to them.”
A second girl featured in the book also expressed dismay. “Although we discussed sex, it was not the focus of my senior year at all. I feel like they’re just capitalizing on the [hockey] scandal.”
Thursday, December 13, 2007
So far, so good. A pleasant but inconsequential movie, with some irresistible Cole Porter songs ably sung by Kevin Kline. And then came the day that Barbara and I saw the Sara & Gerald Murphy exhibit at Williams College, where we realized that the Murphys and their sons had played a major part in the life of Cole Porter — but we hadn’t remembered them from De-Lovely. Time to see that movie again, right?
The were two results to seeing it again. The minor one was that we found (not surprisingly) that there were indeed a great many appearances by the Murphys in the movie. If we had known who they were, we would have paid attention to them. (There’s a moral there somewhere.) But the major result was that we realized that this was a far better movie than we had originally thought. Maybe it was simply the effect of seeing it for the second time, maybe it was the focus caused by the fact that we had something to look for — whatever it was, De-Lovely had changed from a competent movie to a first-rate one. Of course it was still the same movie, but not in our perception. Everything held together well, the songs were perfectly integrated into the biography, we understood Cole Porter far better than we had done earlier, and even the performances were better than they were the first time around. So now I highly recommend De-Lovely, but perhaps some advanced preparation would help.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
What do we truly "need to know"?
But I’m going to try.
The basic idea, actually, is pretty much unassailable. Suppose, for example, you determine that all high-school graduates need to understand the difference between a mean and a median and need to be able to compute basic probabilities. Those are probably reasonable goals, and in that case you really do want to distinguish the essential-to-know (measures of central tendency, definition of probability) from the nice-to-know (measures of dispersion, permutations vs. combinations). I feel confident that standards-based learning, which says that we should “begin with the end in mind,” is a lot more appropriate than older approaches that are based either on a long inventory of skills or perhaps on a few fluffy concepts.
But...there are a couple of big hidden assumptions here. One is that we (the experts) know what’s essential to know, and that we know it for all students. The trouble is that there are many students for whom measures of dispersion and distinguishing permutations from combinations are essential knowledge. Doesn’t the “essential to know” philosophy fly in the face of differentiated instruction, which recognizes that different students have different needs? I suppose you could say that there’s no real conflict, since one issue is talking about ends and the other is talking about means, but that would only be true in an ideal world in which everyone had all the time and all the motivation that one might want.
So we have some workarounds that provide partial solutions to this dilemma. The big one is the recognition that there are different courses. What’s essential for a college-prep Algebra II student is know is simply not the same as what’s essential for an AP Statistics student to know. So let’s focus on a single course: what’s essential for a college-prep Algebra II student to know?
Our math curriculum at Weston focuses on big ideas, which students explore in a small number of units, rather than focusing on dozens of small skills. In Algebra II the four units are as follows:
- Quadratic Functions
- Exponential and Logarithmic Functions
- Systems of Equations and Inequalities
- Number Theory with Cryptography
And that’s just one question from each unit. I could easily list twenty.
And I can’t even differentiate my answers by distinguishing among specific students. Since I don’t know what your needs are going to be in the future, if you’re a student of mine I can’t predict whether some particular math concept will become essential to you in some future course or even in some future political decision that you’ll be called upon to make. So the only solution is to use our best judgment about what will leave the most doors open to you. But essential? I have no idea what will be essential.
I mentioned above that there are two hidden assumptions. The other one is that students will have a more appropriate learning experience if the nice-to-know is subordinated to the essential-to-know. The origin of this assumption is reasonably clear: without it, too many teachers would make decisions that “seemed like a good idea at the time.” But a course that is limited to what somebody considers essential is an impoverished course. The true tragedy of No Child Left Behind and MCAS is that too many schools and teachers have knocked half of the life out of their curricula. Although I suppose one could argue that everything in a rich curriculum is essential to know, it would be tough to sustain such an argument; the more honest approach is to admit that much of it is merely “nice to know” but so what? If teachers teach what they love and can get a significant number of students to do likewise, it’s going to be an improved experience for those students. I’ve often written about The Saturday Course in this blog; there are a great many reasons why this program is so astonishingly successful, but surely the major explanation is that talented teachers have the freedom to teach topics that they’re passionate about to students are motivated to learn. Yes, what I teach in The Saturday Course may not be essential to know, but it’s an essential part of my students’ education.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Gardner at the dealership
It was definitely an improvement.
Another customer is sitting at the next table, also waiting for her car to be serviced. And she’s also working, but instead of using a computer she’s intently studying a book. I can’t really see its cover, except that the title seems to start with the word “Five.” She continues to read. I continue to type.
A chatty salesman — is there any other kind? — comes over to her and engages her in conversation. Now we get to the stereotypes: what do you expect a car salesman will talk to a customer about? Well, if it’s a male customer, you’d expect sports or of course cars, although neither would get far with me. With a female — who knows? Television? Movies? Surely not politics. How about the weather? I can’t help listening in, as they’re only 15 feet away, and anyway I’m being nosy. And the answer was...multiple intelligences, of course. Maybe that’s what you would have expected, but it wouldn’t been my guess. It turned out that the woman was a suburban English teacher (apparently another Dorchester reverse-commuter), reading Howard Gardner’s new book, Five Minds for the Future, as an assignment for a workshop. She gave the book a lukewarm endorsement (at that point, to be fair, she was only halfway through). But the interesting thing was the salesman’s extensive and reasonably thoughtful discourse on our education system and on multiple intelligences. It’s always good to bust some stereotypes every now and then.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Labyrinth of Languages
Have you ever wondered about exploring other languages — what they’re like, how they’re related, and who speaks them where? If so, this is the course for you. Each week we’ll focus on an important language or region of the world. We’ll try to answer a lot of fascinating questions along the way. For instance, is Chinese really a single language with many dialects? Why is English so widespread around the world? And why did Spanish and Portuguese spread around so much of the world as well? Speaking of Spanish, what else do they speak in Spain? Does everyone there speak Spanish? Have you heard of Catalan? What about Basque? Lots of Spaniards speak those two languages. Do you know whether there are more English speakers orI taught this to a group of sixth-graders for six weeks in September and October, and then to a group of fifth-graders for another six weeks in October–December, with (IMHO) considerable success. As always, the reality didn’t quite match the description, but it came remarkably close. The kids were great, ranging from enthusiastic to knowledgeable, with a great many being both. By a strange coincidence, my class was 50% Chinese in the first go-round (five of the ten kids), so I did a bit more Chinese than anticipated, especially since one student was extraordinarily opinionated — and with the knowledge to back up her strong opinions. For instance, she was unhappy when I said that Japanese originally didn’t have any writing system so they borrowed kanji characters from Chinese: “They didn’t borrow our characters — they stole them! And they never returned them.”
Hindi speakers in the world? Did you know that Turkish is related to Mongolian? How could that be? And why is Irish related to Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan? Take a lot of languages and a pinch of geography, toss them into your cauldron, stir twice counterclockwise, and you’ve got this course!
After some tweaking, I settled on a six-week plan (one 75-minute class per week) that looks like this:
- The languages of Spain
- The countries and languages of the former Soviet Union (mostly Russian)
- Turkish and other Turkic languages
- How languages change over time and space (mostly English)
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Books about high school: The Physics of the Buffyverse, Prep, & The Kings of NY
First, let’s consider The Physics of the Buffyverse, by Jennifer Ouellette. As you can guess, this work of...well, I’m not sure you can say science, I’m not even sure you can say non-fiction...attempts to explain the universe of Buffy and Angel in the context of actual science (not just physics). The blurb on the back of the book, like many blurbs, overreaches:
From electricity, conservation of energy, and special relativity to worm-holes, black holes, and string theory, The Physics of the Buffyverse provides a serious shot of science for those who prefer their physics with a pop-culture chaser.Unfortunately, though, it does no such thing. The author, a successful professional science writer, presents an amusing account where the science is pretty much disconnected from the television shows. A notable exception is the discussion of the physics involved in Buffy’s defensive and offensive moves in hand-to-hand combat, perhaps because no flights of fancy are required other than Buffy’s superhuman strength. But attempts to explain vampires and other demons, telepathy, and witchcraft all inevitably fall far short of being convincing.
And what does all this have to do with high school, you may ask? Simply that the entire Buffy series is clearly a metaphor for teenage life, starting literally with the experience of Buffy and the Scooby gang in high school and continuing even when some are in college and others are in the so-called “real world” (definitely so-called in these circumstances). With that perspective, The Physics of the Buffyverse is still fun and worth reading, but you’ll be hungry again in an hour.
Next we come to Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This well-known novel, about a lower-middle-class girl who leaves Indiana to attend Groton, I mean Ault. The annoyingly self-centered Lee Fiora begins to wear on the reader after a while, although the portrayal of an elite New England boarding school certainly keeps the attention of a reader who attended one, and Sittenfeld does convincingly portray Lee’s social ineptness even if the book leaves a lot else to be desired. As an alum of a New England prep school, I was particularly interested to see whether Groton Ault seemed familiar to me, though there must be so many differences between single-sex Phillips Academy in the ’60s and coed Groton Ault in the ’80s that it might not be a fair comparison.
Generally, Prep managed to hold my attention throughout the story. But anachronistically modern slang didn’t help maintain the illusion that the action was supposed to take place in the ’90s. And why are there only two black characters, one of whom has to turn out to be a thief who gets expelled from the school?
Finally, we have a book that’s clearly a work of non-fiction: The Kings of New York, by Michael Weinreb, subtitled “A year among the geeks, oddballs, and geniuses who make up America’s top high school chess team.” You can see why that grabbed my attention. Presumably this book would be in the tradition of various true-life accounts of high-school mathletes and musicians, focusing on the tension between how normal the kids are and how unusual they are. And in a sense that’s what it is. But it never really grabbed my attention the way that I had expected. It was just never very exciting.
The New York Times Book Review gave it a wonderful review. I loved reading the well-written review, but the book itself didn’t live up to it. Or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood.
A blurb on the back of the book makes the following claim:
The Kings of New York isn’t so much a book about high school chess as it is an unforgettable journey into the blessing and curse of adolescent genius. With a narrative rich in voice — a gathering of intoxicating characters — Michael Weinreb has delivered nothing short of a generational classic. This is a stunning book. You won’t soon forget it.That’s indeed what I was looking for. But unfortunately I have in fact forgotten it.
So here we have three books that all deal with high school in one way or another. One takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban California community, one in an elite New England boarding school, and one in a gritty urban neighborhood of New York. Three different environments, three different points of view. I’m glad I read all three of these books, but in their own ways I wish all three had been better.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Veterans' Day Assembly
This was the first year in my memory that Weston High School held a Veterans’ Day Assembly. It was extraordinarily well done, and a truly moving experience to boot. Second World War veterans and their families were the invited guests.
Because Veterans’ Day comes on a Sunday this year, the assembly was held yesterday, two days early. It was a complicated production, consisting of an elaborate sequence of performances and talks, but everything proceeded like clockwork. The Weston High School Wind Ensemble played a smoothly integrated medley of military marches. Men and women in the audience who were veterans of the various services (or whose family members were) rose to stand whenever the march for their branch was played; the silent rising and sitting contributed a sense of personal meaning and even grandeur.
The marches were followed by a video montage of Second World War events and two songs from the era performed by the Golden Tones Senior Chorus.
I had originally been skeptical when I had seen the program ahead of time, for there were two keynote speakers listed to follow the chorus. But I need not have been skeptical, as both talks were effective and even captivating. (And, as far as I could tell from where I sat, the students in the audience were remarkably attentive, not merely well-behaved.) First came Harry Jones, a spry 94-year-old whose personal reminiscences harked back to the day he joined the Navy, immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The second speaker was Dan Oliff, an 85-year-old youngster, father of our current Superintendent of Schools, Alan Oliff. Some of my colleagues and students had low expectations here, on the theory that no one could have refused a request by the boss to have his father speak, no matter how bad he might be. But anybody who had low expectations must have been pleasantly astonished at the fascinating content and attention-holding delivery, which earned a standing ovation. As the Town Crier wrote in its summary:
Oliff, who served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific, spoke of his transformation from a small-town New Jersey boy “interested pretty much just in driving, dating and dancing” to learning about a wider world, where — among other things — segregation of African-Americans was condoned.The program concluded with additional musical performances, preceded by a brief but very effective talk by two high-school seniors, Emma Pearson and Michela Hattabaugh, about their experience visiting the American cemetery in Normandy.
As for his combat experience in the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian and, finally, Iwo Jima, “We could literally smell fear on the battlefield. It was a complete shock. I thought I was a tough guy and there were guys who were tougher than me. But we sat and cried. Don’t ever challenge the virility of a Marine who cries.”
Every soldier who came back, he went on, suffered what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. “Some still have flashbacks. Others are not dealing with a full deck.”
Still, he insisted to the high school students in the audience, “although we were called the Greatest Generation, you are the Greatest Generation. If your way of life is challenged, you will rise to the occasion.”
Friday, December 07, 2007
Visiting Pittsfield (...Who would visit Pittsfield?)
If you say you’re going to the Berkshires for vacation, nobody bats an eye. But say that you’re going to Pittsfield, you get some very odd looks. Who ever vacations in Pittsfield? It can simply be, of course, a convenient base for day trips throughout the Berkshires, so now you can relax.
But that’s not all it was. In fact, Barbara and I really did take a short vacation in Pittsfield — on purpose, even! That’s because of the Dorchester Historical Society (DHS), you see.
You don’t see the connection? Well, the DHS headquarters is the William Clapp House, and our historical connections are heavily imbued with the Clapp and Blake families. One of their branches went “out west” to Pittsfield, and their family house there is now a B&B: the Thaddeus Clapp House. So naturally we had to stay there. It turns that not only is it a truly excellent B&B, but the owner, Rebecca Smith, is a veritable gold-mine of information about the Clapp family and the history of Pittsfield.
And Pittsfield itself turned out to be surprisingly interesting. Currently undergoing something of a renaissance, it is recovering from the devastating loss occasioned by the departure of General Electric. In its former condition it had little to offer visitors, but its industrial basis was economically sound; now the industry is gone, but there’s beginning to be a replacement. Public art is sprinkled throughout the downtown area, lending life and interest to it. There are a few excellent restaurants, such as the Trattoria Rustica, though we found the better known Spice to be definitely overrated. The small Berkshire Museum has some interesting exhibits, including a cool one on toys. Self-guided walking tours are available and worthwhile.
But mostly we really did use Pittsfield as a base for day trips. MASS MoCA in North Adams is a must-see, as much for the buildings as for the art in them. We arrived during the tremendous controversy about the Büchel exhibit, getting to hear all about it and glimpsing bits of its through the half-hearted attempts to shield it from view. We liked some of the rest of the art, were puzzled by much of it, but definitely felt that it was worth seeing. (And their restaurant, Cafe Latino, was surprisingly good! Try the calmari, the fish tacos, and the anticuchos.)
The small Crane Museum in Dalton was also a surprising hit. You might not think that a museum dedicated to the history of paper would be fascinating, but fascinating it was.
So now the museum count is up to three. But there were two more big ones on our list: it’s always worth devoting significant time to the Clark Institute in Williamstown, where we saw a wonderful Monet exhibit including large numbers of works that were totally different from the ones with which we had been familiar. And the much smaller Williams College Museum of Art had an entrancing exhibit about Sara and Gerald Murphy, about whom we would have known nothing if it weren’t for reading a New Yorker article about them. (And now we’ll have to watch De-Lovely again, since we discovered that they had a pervasive presence in the life of Cole Porter, which we hadn’t noticed.)
Finally, on our way home, we spent half a day at Edith Wharton’s estate, The Mount — a stop that we highly recommend.
All in all, hardly a typical vacation, but it all turned out to be both fun and educational!
Thursday, December 06, 2007
A mostly vegetarian (and slightly Chinese) Thanksgiving
I guess it’s appropriate to follow a review of a play called An Absolute Turkey with a review of a Thanksgiving dinner that was entirely turkey-free. As usual, Barbara and I participated in Thanksgiving dinner this year at my sister Ellen’s vegetarian household — but this was the first year that we didn’t bring any poultry. Usually we bring a capon or a small turkey. But given the copious variety of delicious vegetarian food, nobody seemed to miss it. And no, the dinner did not consist of salad, as one of my students imagined. It was all substantial food; in fact, there was not a salad to be seen.
Actually, though, it turned out that there was a bit of poultry, as the Chinese neighbors brought along a delicious duck dish that they had prepared (along with excellent spring rolls). The guests were the usual eclectic mix, including the Chinese grandmother, here for a few months visiting from Beijing. Since she didn’t speak English, her family had to translate for her. Unsurprisingly, one of the American guests was eager to ask the grandmother some questions. These started with, “What did you think about Tiananmen Square,” which elicited a very cautious and bland response, followed up by some more probing questions related to the grandmother’s view of the Chinese government. At that point, caution and blandness were replaced by fear and nervousness: “Why do you want to know all this? Are you going to tell the government?” For all our negative views of the current administration in Washington, we too easily forget that we live in a free society and that many others don’t.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
An Absolute Turkey
The Theater Company at Weston High School put on a hilarious performance of Georges Feydeau’s 1896 farce, An Absolute Turkey this weekend. Director and theater teacher John Minigan reports that “the French mother of a former student...had not been aware that Feydeau’s works were widely known outside France,” and indeed I don’t think I had heard of him previously. But this work is unquestionably worth seeing, and I enjoyed every minute of the production.
The best aspect of the students’ performance was their amazing success at the difficult timing demanded by this place. As a farce, it presents challenge after challenge. In Minigan’s words, “The verbal and physical work required of actors in a Feydeau farce is immensely challenging for any actor, and especially for a teenager.” The performers did an excellent job of both aspects, the verbal and physical. I particularly want to commend first-timers Katherine Donahue, whom I don’t know, and Anna Been, whom I do. Along with veterans Alex Engler, Quinton Kappel, Todd Elfman, Brian Cowe, Ben Doyle, Cara Guappone, and others, their skills and dedication added up to create a truly fine evening.
Do come to Weston High School for this year’s upcoming winter and spring productions as well! An original play, scripted by the acting ensemble, will be performed February 28 through March 1; and Gilbert & Sullivan’s classical Pirates of Penzance will be performed April 11 and 12.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Switzerland is not Sweden
“Where’s Ms. Shields this year?” one sophomore asked.
Before I could reply, one of her classmates gave her the answer: “Don’t you remember? She got married and moved to Philadelphia.”
“Oh, yes,” recalled the first student. “She married some German guy, didn’t she?”
“I don’t think he’s German,” offered student #2. “He must be Swedish, ’cause they got married in Sweden.”
“But he’s still German,” countered the first sophomore. “People in Sweden are German. That’s because Sweden conquered Germany in World War I.”
I decided it would be better not to try to set them right, other than to point out that the guy Ms. Shields married was Swiss, and they got married in Switzerland, not in Sweden. Switzerland, Sweden, what’s the difference?
Monday, December 03, 2007
Cross at the green
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Hiatus is over
First I ran into recent Weston alumni Sheldon and Chester at the school play, and they asked why I hadn’t posted recently.
“Yes, I know,” I replied. “I haven’t posted in five months.”
“Six, actually,” they observed.
Then my colleague Olga asked why I hadn’t updated my blog in so long. Then my current student Ethan said that he was tired of reading my old posts, so I needed to write some new ones.
All of them are right, of course. So I’m officially resuming right now!
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