Archive for the ‘Rants and Raves’ Category

Asperger’s Syndrome: It’s Not “Cool”—It Just “Is”.

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My class reunion is coming up this weekend. I went to the last one–it was okay. Not much had changed about how people acted or treated one another. I stay in touch with the people I like and not the ones I don’t, so there was no real need to go to this next one. Besides, my buddies weren’t going, and I sure could use a free weekend to write. Or do laundry.

The other day, my spousal partner heard me talking to our teenager about how much I had loved chemistry in high school. (The teenager is a complete math/science nerd and extremely proud of it, though getting him to write is worse than pulling molars). We had a good teacher–she was funny and she knew how to teach, a winning combo. I especially enjoyed the study of atoms–how they were made and stuff of that ilk (I’m sure there’s a name for that sort of thing, but I don’t recall it). My spouse asked me why I’d never taken more science in college, aside from the required 2-course sequence (biology) if I loved chemistry so much. “Because of my high school trig teacher,” I promptly answered. “She taught me a bad lesson–that I couldn’t do math.” Now you see how this links to the high school reunion. I’ve been seeing pictures on various social media making quips about that math class and its “quirky” teacher. They’re not a bit funny to me. Having that teacher was, in fact, more than a bit traumatic.

See, here’s the deal. I was good at math and science. Maybe I wasn’t destined for a career in chemistry, nor was I any kind of math genius, but with the right person guiding me, I not only was decent at math and science, I was quite good at geometry. And I did fine in biology, though I liked chemistry much better. The spouse said, “I see a lot of stories about ‘the teacher that most influenced me’ in a positive light. Why not write about a negative experience?” So here it is.

I had a particularly superb 8th grade math teacher (I took algebra a year early) as well as an inspiring 8th grade science teacher (earth science–weather and oceanography–it was wonderful). I remember her setting a glass of cold water down in front of our lab group. Condensation formed on the exterior of the container. “Tell me what is happening and why,” she said. “Explain to me what’s going on when the water forms on the outside of the glass.” We came up with some wild theories, but eventually figured it out by working through the problem in front of us. Damn, talk about a teachable moment! And it was low cost! I ran into her about 15 years later at a conference and was delighted to see she’d gone on to teach college science education to future teachers, after a long career in the middle school classroom. My algebra teacher began on the first day of class with the books open on the desks. She could be fun, but she stressed to us from Day 1 how serious we had to be about our studies. I got pneumonia in 8th grade and had to stay home five days of school. When the doctor looked at my chest x-rays and delivered the bad news, I panicked. “I can’t miss algebra!” I cried. “Please, can I just go to school for that one period?” He looked at my mom and said, “No patient of mine has ever complained about getting to miss school.” I think he thought I was nuts–or very odd. I got As for all but one 6-week grading period that year.

So, in high school, as a freshman, I was in Algebra II and Biology, both of which were sophomore classes. I wasn’t the #1 student, but I was still a strong performer. I enjoyed the classes a lot. Even dissection, which I found pretty gross, was bearable. I knew absolutely and utterly that I would never have a career in any kind of medical setting–ever. I took a second year of biology–challenging but interesting–and followed up that second algebra with geometry, which I adored. I was considering a career in law, with a major in classics or English, so doing proofs was kind of a breeze.

As a junior, I went into the next math course–college algebra (aka algebra III) and trig, a two-semester combined course. And things fell apart. No matter how much homework I did or how many hours I spent studying, I rarely got scores above a C. And I really tried. I got help from friends. I spent hours trying to understand the stuff. But when the teacher’s idea of “teaching” was showing one problem, saying “you don’t have to understand anything but the formula,” and getting students to do problems on the board (sometimes incorrectly) without any follow-up explanation…well, that was an issue. Remember that this was long before things like Khan Academy or YouTube; even the Internet was quite young. My parents, who had no idea what to do, called the district office to see if any kind of tutoring was available–nope. I squeaked by with a C in college algebra, but when it got to trig, I couldn’t even get a D. So, I just completely gave up. I spent that last 15 or so weeks of school writing scripts for a TV show my bestie and I had created. The teacher never noticed since I was quiet and didn’t move the chair out of its tile squares; she had a real fixation about that. My writing skills developed nicely. Meanwhile, I was doing fine in all my other subjects, and I’d discovered a passion for history, thanks to a teacher every bit as gifted as the math teacher was terrible. It was probably the only thing that kept me from falling into a serious depression. For the first time in my life, I had genuinely failed at something. My demanding mother, who never interfered in school because teachers were always right, saw how hard I’d worked and didn’t skin me alive for bringing home a report card with the letters A, A, B+, A, A, F.  (The B+ was in chemistry, back in the days when an A had to be a 94 or higher). Something look weird about those letters to you? Yeah, me, too. If I had a student with those grades, I’d talk to them and find out what was going on. Only one teacher of mine did. All students had the same homeroom teacher, all four years of high school. Near the last day of school that year, she took me aside. Mind you, she hadn’t ever had me for a class, and other than seeing her for 15 minutes a day, she barely knew me…or so I thought.

“I just wanted to tell you….” I remember her awkward pause. “I wanted to tell you that the same thing that happened to you in math this year happened to my daughter, too.” I recalled that her daughter had graduated a year earlier, a popular honor student. “And…please don’t worry. She got into the first university of her choice. She’s doing great there, and she’s not having any trouble with math on the college level.” That was all she said, and probably all she felt she could say without speaking ill of a colleague. I wish I’d thanked her more for saying what she did. It meant a lot. Flunking that math class seemed to cost me a lot in the short term–not graduating in the top 10 of my class, not taking any more math or science (despite wanting to be in advanced chemistry), possibly missing out on some scholarship money, and definitely destroying my confidence in my math/science abilities. I never considered any kind of career in science after that point…because I’d been given the clear message that I would fail.

I exempted all but one math class for my undergraduate degree; I took logic for that one required math and got a B, which was fine since it was actually sort of boring. I took one statistics course in grad school and got an A. I became a successful social sciences faculty member with a Ph.D., a tenured associate professor (for the moment). I thought I’d never have to worry about math again aside from averaging grades. But then, we had this aberrant child who was some kind of math/science whiz. When he was in 5th grade, I saw that unless I refreshed my math skills, I wouldn’t be able to help him before too much time passed.

We are lucky enough to be able to take one or two classes as employees of our university system, free, each semester. I’d been out of high school a long time; heck, I’d been out of college a long time, other than as the instructor. I knew I was both wiser and able to tell whether or not a teacher knew how to teach. I took a chance and enrolled in college algebra. Parts of it were challenging (logarithms, shudder), but I got an A. In fact, to everyone’s utter shock, I found out I sort of liked math, for many of the same reasons I took and liked foreign languages. I got a thrill out of the deciphering and problem solving. I enjoyed it enough to enroll next in pre-calculus, and there was another shock: I loved trig. LOVED it. The whole earth opened up, and angels sang as my mind started seeing unit circles in everything from the window panes to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It blew me away. But let me quickly give credit to the professor, who used videos, practice tests, homework with a program that walked students step-by-step through how to work problems, and other techniques aside from throwing a random question on the board and expecting students to do math through magical osmosis. He answered any questions, promptly and thoroughly, no matter how “stupid” they may have seemed. I recommend him all the time, and most students have agreed with my assessment of his teaching skills. The ones that don’t are usually those who don’t bother to take advantage of all the practice and extra credit he offers (probably the same ones who botch my classes, too).

Thus–an example of how a teacher influenced me. No, let’s be honest–that’s a story of how a teacher royally screwed me over. She was a crappy, awful teacher who had no idea how to convey her subject. She may not have intentionally set out to mess with my mind and confidence, but she did, and she never displayed any empathy or compassion to her students. Let’s just say that I was fortunate enough to a) have other teachers that were a positive influence on me (the ones I’ve already named, plus my Latin teacher), and b) possess the metacognition to know how to master a subject I once thought I was absolutely incapable of understanding.

What’s next for me? Well, if I get the time, there’s calculus. And heck, maybe I’ll even give chemistry a try. I’m too old to change careers, but I’m living proof that you are never too old to learn…and master…something new.

Now, back to that novel I’m writing….

As an educator of 20 years, mostly in higher education, people often ask me what I would change about our current education system in the U.S. Five years ago, I would have said it’s fixable. We can reform it within. I can no longer say that. Those of us who teach college are seeing problems that we cannot fix. Here are my top picks for ways to make the U.S. education system a much better one, or at least start the process of change.

1. Treat teachers like the professionals they are. This includes a salary comparable to other professions that require a four-year degree and a professional internship. Ideally, as part of their professional development, all teachers should be encouraged and supported in obtaining a master’s degree as well—not for the increase in pay, but for the intrinsic increase in knowledge.

2. By the same token, make the standards for teacher education and qualification rigorous. Raise the GPA for admission to candidacy, add a fifth ‘supervised’ year of training under a mentor teacher (i.e. the new teacher is autonomous in his/her classroom, but has an experienced guide who can help them with the common problems of first-year teaching), and create a set of meaningful certification criteria that has reciprocity across states. Have yearly evaluations that include periodic observations, portfolios, and interviews rather than putting so much emphasis on students’ test scores or a once-a-year observation. If a teacher is to be considered an ‘expert’ in a specific academic discipline, he or she should hold a master’s degree in that subject as well.

And here is an addendum to colleges of education or other institutions who grant teaching degrees: Make your teacher education candidates work for it. Don’t ignore your undergraduates in favor of your research or grad students. Make sure you focus on giving students in teacher education in-school experiences plus sharp thinking and problem solving skills. Encourage their growth and creativity. Be picky about who you allow into your programs. Do not allow teacher education to be the major people choose when they can’t get into nursing school (sad, but true). Make it be the major that your best college students actively seek out…and if there is competition for limited spots, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3. Catch the weakest K-3 students early in the education process. Get them help sooner, not later, and be willing to compensate the educators for the after-hours time they spend with these students. Provide a dedicated special education teacher, as needed, to every classroom, rather than one for every four or five classrooms. Additionally, a well-trained aide should be a part of every classroom at least through 4th grade.

4. Get over the concept that all children are destined to go to a university. They aren’t. We need qualified, energetic, and dedicated professionals in the service industry. For whatever reason, America often attaches a negative stigma to students who want to be plumbers, electricians, and bricklayers. This is unfair. Personally, I could not perform any of those tasks—and I am very thankful to have skilled men and women I can pay for their work. (My plumber is a lady, by the way).

5. Stop using a business model in education. This means getting rid of NCLB and Race to the Top, cutting back on the high-stakes testing, and abandoning ideology like Lean Six Sigma, which was great for engineering and nuclear power plants, but lousy when applied to people.

6. Find a way to equalize education spending across the country. The system is broken when children in more impoverished states are given X dollars per pupil, while in wealthier states, the spending is 3X dollars, for example. Education, for whatever reason, usually gets the ‘cut’ when a state has budget issues. Education should be the last thing from which funds are ever cut.

7. Create a balance between national and local standards. No one is saying that children in South Carolina need a year-long course in the history of Idaho, or that you must teach physical science in 7th grade and life science in 8th grade. But have some broad national learning objectives for all subjects; then, allow states to determine how they would like to structure and teach those objectives, making them specific and applicable by and on the local level.

8. End social promotion—and by the same token, stop holding back children who are capable of working ahead in a given subject. Add some flexibility to the ‘age/grade’ system, such as letting the 2nd grader who is reading on a higher level spend ELA time in a 3rd grade classroom, or the 3rd grader who hasn’t yet mastered 2nd grade math concepts, but is doing well in other areas, drop back for just that one given subject.

9. Quit promoting bad teachers to administration just to get them out of the classroom, and end the practice of nepotism in promotion. A good educational administrator must first and foremost be a good teacher. Learning to lead and administrate is a skill acquired after several years in the classroom as a teacher.

10. Lower the student to teacher ratio, and regardless of the budget, do not eliminate art, music, PE/recess, and foreign languages from the curriculum. Overwhelming evidence shows that exercise, creativity, and studying a second language are good for the brain and the body.

11. Encourage faculty to engage in creative teaching techniques and collaborative teaching. Offer incentives to teachers who lead these endeavors.

12. The love of standardized testing is so deeply ingrained in U.S. culture, it will be impossible to eradicate it completely. But cut back on it. Consider a nationally-normed test given across a span of time, such as 2nd, 6th, and 8th grade, not every year.

13. Get parents deeply involved–in education. Not just in extracurricular activities, but in supporting their children getting homework done, reading their heads off, and being responsible (according to age and other logical expectations).

14. Finally—whatever new system is put into place—allow it time to thrive and adjust before claiming it doesn’t work or is ineffectual. The most touted educational system in the world, from Finland, took 30 years to perfect and had a lot of bumps along the way.

Plagiarism Sucks

Posted: 23/09/2014 in Rants and Raves

I sent this note out to students. About five across two classes have plagiarized. Not only were they unashamed when caught, they were unapologetic. They wouldn’t discuss it with me. One tried to ‘rewrite’ her work and resubmit it. They disgust me. I detest them. I’m ashamed to be in education right now because it is so fraught with bureaucracy and buzz words and ‘protecting’ the student. Fellow students, by the way, are just as angry–they are asking me, “I saw someone’s post, and clearly, they stole stuff off Wikipedia. Did you see that?” All I can say is, “Yes, and I followed the rules in my syllabus.” When I started teaching, it was about helping people grow and learn. It was about how could I best achieve that. Now, it’s all about ‘success rates’ and ‘documentation of critical thinking by giving students an assessment of how they ‘felt’ about the assessment.’ I technically can retire in 12 years. I am trying to figure out a way to shave that down a bit. I am starting to hate (yes, I know–strong word) and dread every day I work and every paper I have to read. I am a glorified tech support person who also gets some money to enable students, not teach them.

I made the religious notation because in their personal introductions, a huge percentage of my students commented how important their religion was to them; it’s not normally something I’d even mention. It sickens me that so many of them wear religious regalia and still cheat. One of my cheaters is a nurse. Does she cheat on other things, I wonder? I personally think plagiarism or cheating is despicable and wish anyone who did it would be summarily kicked out of college. However, there’s so much due process to protect students, they get a 0. That’s about all I can do that will actually stick unless they are repeat offenders. We couldn’t even get a file started to keep a record of repeat offenders in different classes. It’s insane.

Dear Students,

Being a student can be very challenging. It’s often made more difficult by life circumstances. I was in grad school and teaching when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died, at the same time I was going through a divorce. I stuck with school and finished, even though that semester wasn’t my best work. This past January, my father died after a long illness at the same time we were without power due to the ice storm. I was taking two programming classes–and withdrawing from them was the best option for me because I got too far behind to catch up. I kept my professors informed, but I took responsibility for my decisions–they were my choices.

However, one thing I HAVE NEVER, EVER done, in 10 years of school and through 3 degrees and 4 additional courses in math and computer science for personal enrichment and through a LOT OF “PERSONAL STUFF” is plagiarize. If you want examples and a definition, READ YOUR SYLLABUS. I was recently singled out and complimented by the dean of social sciences for my clear explanations on what plagiarism is and what consequences it incurs. Plagiarism is dishonest. It is lying. It is cheating. If you consider yourself religious in any way, think of it as immoral and wrong and the same as stealing. If you commit plagiarism, that’s the same as going into a store and stealing something another person has worked hard to make and produce. Let’s not mince words here.

I’ve taught 20 years. I’ve heard ALL the excuses (and they usually fall into one of these categories):

•    “I’m so busy, I just took a shortcut.”

•    “My personal life is hard right now–a lot is going on.”

•    “I didn’t know it was a problem. I thought it would be okay just this once.”

•    “I wasn’t clear on what you meant by how to cite sources in writing.”

I don’t care about your excuse. I don’t care about your reason. I do care about you not doing it–ever. Read the syllabus again. Ask your advisor. Ask tutors. I have had about five students commit some sort of plagiarism this semester. They have received the consequences. Possibly others have done it and not yet got caught–trust me, you will get caught at some point.

Make sure you do not copy and paste work from the internet. Make sure you cite your sources. Make sure you ASK if you are ever unsure if you are doing it right.

There is never an excuse. Never. I will make sure you are given the harshest consequences possible. I am aware and watching. Think about that before you are tempted to commit plagiarism.

Dr. Andromache

PS: Yes, I am quite furious. The thoughts of someone stealing another person’s writing and hard work is absolutely infuriating to me. I find it abominable behavior and have zero respect for anyone who would do this.