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May 2006


May 30, 2006   

I had yet another conversation this weekend that dealt with having passion for something, where I told the other person that I wasn’t particularly passionate about any one specific thing, which was clearly off-putting to the other person.

It’s weird how we are all driven by the idea that each one of us needs to have that one driving — excuse the repetition — passion that we live by, so much so that when someone asserts that they don’t have one, we need to assure them they can look forward to finding something in the future or just plain old feel weirded out by it.

I suppose if I do a lot of soul-searching, I do have things I’m intensely passionate about; they are simply not things that other people generally put the tag of passion on.

I’m passionate about living a life without regrets. This doesn’t mean that I don’t in fact have any regrets. It’s just that I think self-reflection and learning through mistakes is important, but there is no point in kicking yourself just to kick yourself. And if you think you are going to kick yourself about it, then do something different. I don’t want to look back on my life when I’m on my deathbed and be filled with more “what ifs” than happy memories.

I’m passionate about protecting my family & loved ones. I want them to be well-cared for and be able to self-actualize.

I’m passionate about enjoying the everyday and not letting good things go undetected on my radar just because I’m in a holding pattern waiting for something bigger. For the love of God, just enjoy the warm breeze across your cheek, the hug of a loved one, the job that keeps great food on the table, a good hair day, whatever it is that you think is too cheesy or beneath you or too fleeting to value. It’s not senseless optimism and it’s not pretending bad things don’t exist; it’s acknowledging and valuing the honest-to-goodness great things in your life along with the bad, instead of artificially focussing on the bad only. I’m guilty of selectively focussing on bad things too, but in general, I try not to let those things rule my life.

As a corollary to the above things, I am passionate about talking things out with my friends and family with the hope that they too will live a life with no regrets and filled with everyday joys. I think I kind of suck at this, actually, but hope to be better.

I think when I say I’m not passionate about any one thing, I mean that I’m not interested in developing skill X to a professional/lucrative/peer-acknowledged level. I’m not interested in being a great writer. I’m not interested in being a great painter. I’m not interested in being a great teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc. Well, it’s not to say I’m not interested in these things; I’m simply not so passionate about them that I’m willing to make them the single focal driving force of my life. Saying my passion is keeping my priorities in order sounds like it’s a judgment on others and their priorities, so that’s not the right way to put it. It’s more that my priorities are more focussed on love & relationships, and people (including me) are not generally used to thinking of this sort of thing as a driving passion.

I suppose also that I’m passionate about “making the world a better place”, but I understand a lot of my personal limitations. I admire other people who go out and do things that I don’t (or haven’t done in a long time), whether it is helping the homeless, volunteering at an orphanage, working for a political movement, etc., but I don’t necessarily think that my best skills lie in those arenas. I do hope to be more involved in these things somehow though. I also hope that when I am older, I can somehow be involved in helping younger people shape their lives & goals, but for now, being involved in my loved ones’ lives is what I’m passionate about.

ETA: I think a good summarization of my passions is to say I am like the Godfather. *tries & succeeds in not quoting obvious line* 😉


May 30, 2006   

People have been talking about the high school exit exam for months, so nothing I say here is new. Its implementation here has been exceedingly frustrating.

First and foremost, I find nothing objectionable about having a national standard for educational requirements. I do, however, find many things objectionable about the exit exam.

Requiring an exit exam makes at least one primary assumption that I do not feel the exam itself can address: the grades given out by the teachers are not trustworthy. If it was believed that teachers all across the U.S. were giving out 100% trustworthy grades (where a “trustworthy” grade given to a student always directly correlates on an absolute scale to his/her level of proficiency) to the students, then all passing students should get a diploma, no question.

If it is believed that the grades given to the students are not trustworthy, this belief implies at least one of a couple of other possible beliefs: either A) the teacher believes the student deserves the grade he/she got but is wrong or the B) teacher is knowingly giving the studen a grade that he/she does not deserve.

Let’s take scenario A. In scenario A, the teacher is grading to the best of his/her abilities and believes him/herself to be judging the students’ progresses fairly, but is in fact not. An “A” grade assigned by this teacher might in reality be a “B” as normalized against the other teachers in the school/district/state/country. Similarly, a “D” may in reality be an “F”.

In this case, it is because the teacher does not understand the standards that the students should meet. If this is happening, you have the problem that everyone involved — teacher, students, and parents — all believe that the student is doing well [enough] and by all means should pass and get a diploma, albeit just barely in the case of the D->F student. Even the A->B student suffers in the real world and/or college because the level of learning they believe they had achieved may not stand up to that of their A-graded peers.

It seems that the “better” (in quotes because it does not take into account budgetary considerations or possible objections from involved individuals and is simply my subjective judgment) solution would be to put the teachers through a process of education where they are made aware of the national standards and given continual access to tools to gauge their students’ progress as compared to the nation and/or absolute set of standards. I met a wife of Seppo’s ex-coworker[‘s uncle’s roommate’s boyfriend’s dogwalker’s mom’s poker partner’s dentist] over the weekend that is working with a non-profit organization that provides grants to teachers, schools, and other organizations in order to provide continuing professional development for teachers, improving their access to education & professional tools so that their students will get more out of their learning experience.

My housemate’s girlfriend, a teacher, also told me about a set of funded classes that Apple (I think?) was providing in order to educate teachers on how to effectively use computers to help teach. I think this is fantastic. But I want to see this come out of the federal education budget.

I think it’s disgusting that your zip code can have such a drastic effect on your education, that property tax is a large component of what your teachers will be paid. This can only lead to greater and greater stratification of the socioeconomic classes — if you are poor, you most likely live in a poor neighborhood with low property taxes, leading to your school district being starved for funds, leading to low wages for teachers, leading to brain-drain into higher paying districts, leading to your children being left of crappily paid teachers who need to dig into their own empty pockets to try to supplement the meager educational materials that the district can pay for, as well as less access to enrichment programs, leading to lower educational opportunity for your students, leading to lower paying jobs for those students, leading back full circle to those former students living in a poor neighborhood.

Of course, it’s not that simple and there are a great number of people who break through those circumstances, which is awesome. But just because those people are awesome, it doesn’t mean it’s ok for everyone else who gets shafted by the circumstances of their birth, and that it’s ok to pretend the shafting is not occurring.

Where the heck was I? Oh yes, teachers & grading…

Let’s now take scenario B, where the teacher knows the student doesn’t deserve a certain grade but gives it out anyway. What are the probably circumstances under which this could happen? The ones I can think of are: 1) student is a well-behaved “nice” student and is already behind by a grade or two and tries to work hard, but still does not meet the standards, 2) the teacher will face disciplinary action or possible lay-off if X out of Y students do not pass in any given year (or number of years), 3) the teacher is facing pressure from parents and/or administration regarding the specific student, 4) the student has shown vast improvement in learning in the time she/he has been with the teacher.

There must be tons of other common cases, but these are ones that immediately come to mind.

Case 1 is a pretty sad case, in my opinion, because the student is working hard which the teacher can clearly see, but the student simply does not achieve the standard that he/she should. The teacher wants to reward such hard work and desire to not “cause problems” and might even feel sorry for the student, who may have previously been held back a few times. Being held back again could potentially break the student’s will to work hard, which would be terrible. But passing the student on to the next level before he/she is ready can be to the student’s detriment, since he/she won’t be able to keep up with the next grade, no matter how hard she/he works. This is how we end up graduating functionally illiterate students.

What is the solution to this? I don’t know. What I know about are “learning disabled” classes and other classroom structures that allows you to be in the 7th grade, but take 5th grade level reading classes. LD classes are not necessarily the right answer for when a student is not actually learning disabled but simply struggling with learning. I am not sure where the exact line is drawn but it seems like there is a line. My grade school had a mix of both: an LD class set aside for specific students, and different level reading & math classes for students who were keeping up with their peers for all the other classes except for that specific class. The different levels for reading & math was great for me because I got to go to the higher grades, but how did the kids feel who had to leave the room to go to a lower level feel? Was it discouraging? Did it encourage them to act out because they didn’t want to be teased? My memory of the kids that had to go to the lower levels was that almost all of them got labelled as “bad” kids. :-/

I went to a much larger school than my grade school for my 8th year. They had a strategy where they put the kids in different levels into different classrooms — I believe there were something like 12 classes of 30-35 students in the 8th grade. I have mixed feelings about this because I think it was good that all students didn’t have to compete with each other and that the teachers could focus better than if they had to deal with the fastest student in the grade and the slowest student in the grade at the same time, but I think it was bad that the classrooms were numbered 8-1, 8-2, … , 8-12, where 8-1 was the class of the fastest learners and 8-12 was the slowest. I think that really sucked because the information was out there in such an obvious way.

Hmm, I’m totally off on a tangent again. Since this is overly long already, I think basically when a teacher is giving out “wrong” grades, IMHO it’s because of immense social and/or professional pressure. We should have a standardized approach to help teachers deal with these issues as they arise. And what is the right thing to do when a student is learning faster and better than before due to his/her dedication along with the teacher’s efforts, but the teacher ends up professionally disciplined because the bottom line was not good enough? Do vast improvements count for nothing? And parents have no business trying to strongarm teachers into giving out better grades. I think this pisses me off more than anything else.

The bottom line is that the test doesn’t solve any problems. The students who think they were passing (or even doing exceptionally well) may be completely be surprised to see that they don’t pass the exit exam, even though they had done all the work required of them and passed all the tests leading up to it. Because of problems created by low resources, lack of funding, low salaries, or even with the sad case of bad teachers, the student faces a shock at the end. The problem is systemic and lies in the many many years leading up to graduation, not the moment before graduation.

The teachers should be taught what the standards are and given ample resources to teach them. The students should be graded in a trustworthy manner. The exit exam could act as a guide to modify future teaching methods, but does nothing for the students or teachers currently caught in its net.