Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Summer

Yesterday I put a picture on my page. This shot was taken in Canada from a moving car. It is one of the few good pictures I took this summer. I went to upper Michigan and I went Cleveland and Virgina. I just didn't seem to do as much good photography as I did last year. I have been wondering why.

Last year I was in the west and the west is always inspiring. I don't think this totally explains my lack of output. I think that part of my problem was not going off by myself. Usually I get up early and go out by myself. This year all of my vacation time was with people. I did not have very much time by myself.

I'm reading the biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He was a social guy. He had to be to become president. Roosevelt also owned a ranch in North Dakota and he spent months alone at this ranch, particularly after his first wife died. As I was reading this I realized that I needed some of this. I think spending 3 months a year in the Dakota's is not something I need. When I go to Las Vegas I usually get up at 7 and R gets up at 11. this gives me 4 hours by myself. This gives me a great opportunity to wander around take picture or just do nothing.

I am good at doing nothing by myself when I am home, but somehow this does not lead to creativity. I may actually be grasping at straws but this summer was not very creative for me and I want to figure out how to change this.

I went to Greenwood Cemetery yesterday to visit Alice Roosevelt's grave. I found the family plot but I could not read most of the head stones. This very rich, very powerful family had a modest plot and used stone that did not survive even 100 years. I wandered around with my camera and saw very few good photo opportunities.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blue Wednesday

I have been sitting in a school for the past few days. Because I am an AP I started on Monday. I have helped fix the office and get things working, but there is really nothing serious I can do because I am here only because no one knows where I should be. I could be gone tomorrow.

This has left me a little down but then I started thinking about all the people I left in the rubber room. I can not imagine what it would be like if I was a teacher sitting at home today knowing that tomorrow I would be going back to that awful place. When you first go there you are in shock and usually surprised so you have not had time to think about it. The first few weeks you are involved in trying to figure out how to get out of there. It is only latter that the depression sets in. By that point you are getting used to it. People can get used to anything. If you ever read "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" you can see how someone can adjust.

If I had all of the summer off, and you was able to lead my life with dignity and now it is Wednesday and I know tomorrow I will be once again thrown into that awful place I am not sure what I would feel like. I suppose I would start feeling bad at least a week ahead of Thursday. I know I did not have a great weekend mentally knowing that I was in limbo.

If any of my fellow prisoners are reading this I want to say that I feel for you. I am not sure if you can ever really recover from last year. I do not feel that this type of trial makes you a better person. I do hope that you will find the strength to survive.

One of the participants in the Abu Ghraib jail just finished his trial. He was acquitted of impropriety at the jail, but he was found guilty of talking about it. In other words you can torture prisoners contrary to the Geneva Convention but don't talk about it. An important message to get out to the troops. We wouldn't want someone to talk and possibly blame the generals for this stuff.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

SHH! It's a secret

The Daily News has run a series of articles about a judge in the Bronx named Marian Shelton. Judge Shelton is being investigated for misconduct. The judge took the unusual step of publicizing the charges against her. I am sure that this is driving a lot of people crazy. This all sounds familiar.

The judge is probably not a saint. It sounds like she made some statements that were not always well thought out. I am sure she is not alone in this. As you read the case it does become apparent that people are after her. Her strategy is partially to go public with the charges. Exactly what I did.

The federal government uses national security as an excuse for secrecy all of the time. What is interesting is that every time they lose a freedom of information suit it is apparent that most of the secrets the government keeps are designed to cover up the governments failings and have very little to do with national security.

I keep asking myself if this type of behavior is unique to government or if it exist in all large industries. Con Ed wants to send their own inspectors to look at the steam pipe explosion site. Are they there looking for the truth or are they there to cover up the truth, particularly if the truth is not favorable to Con Ed.

There was a funny report out of London that 40% of married women have lied to their husbands about how much an article of clothing cost. This is a funny story, but it may expose a basic human trait to spin the truth.

Husbands and wives can deal with each other as they see fit. Governments and corporations need to constantly resist the desire to classify actions as secrets. When they give in to this desire they are badly serving society and often badly serving themselves. Mattel may try to keep the lead paint issue secret, but they know that if it gets out they can risk the whole business. Secrecy has a price for them that may be greater than honesty. This is not true of government or public utilities. It is important that we hold officials accountable. Honesty and openness really do matter.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Carl Rove

I see that Carl Rove has resigned. I guess that Carl was the master at telling lies and therefore convincing a proportion of the population that the lies were true. I think something like 40% of America still thinks that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. I suppose in some small way that this happened to me. The principal was able to file charges against me that were lies. The lies were thrown out of court, but a certain percentage of the population believe them and never let go of their belief.

I was reminded of this recently when someone commented on my blog about me being investigated for fixing Regents grades. This never happened, but I suppose it is the lie that matters not the truth. I sometimes feel that I am a boy scout when it comes to things like changing grades or lying about other people. I find it hard to even imagine doing this. I am always shocked when I hear of others doing things like this. It just seems like something you should not do. It would never even think of changing a Regents grade. I suppose I talk about grades because I would rather change the system than change a student's grade.

My argument with grades is with the attempt to make them precise. Regents' grades are given in discreet numerical units. The problem is that people see this as an accurate measure of a student's abilities. Even the people designing the test would not claim that this was so. I doubt if these grades are repeatable closer than 5 or 10 points. In other words if you gave a student 2 chemistry Regents would they score the exact same score or would they just get in the same range.

If I get on a scale this morning and I weigh myself I will get a clear number. If I go to the doctor an hour from now and weigh myself again I will probably get the same number (assuming the two scales are working). This happens because scales are scientific instruments capable of accurately measuring a persons weight. Regents do not work that way and never will. Regents only give you a range. (For my science readers I realize that the two scales will never read exactly the same number. Even scales have errors)

When we tell a student they received a 72 on a regents we seem to be making a statement that is not true. There is probably no difference between a 72 and a 77. We need to stop pretending that teaching is an exact science. This is why I feel that we should go to a system of letter grades. It will change the way we think about kids intellectual abilities. We should be grouping kids into much broader categories.

Teachers have always used class participation as a factor in grading. This is a huge factor in creating grade inaccuracy. If we are making a statement about a kids ability to succeed in life or to do something brilliant you can find that almost all research shows that we consistently miss the most brilliant students. This happens partially because of this class participation component. Class participation usually means who fits the teachers model of a good student. This model rarely has anything to do with what really brilliant kids do.

The bottom line is have grades helped students realize what their abilities are or have they hurt kids by either giving them a false sense of how good they are or by convincing them that they are failures when they are not.

The image on the top was taken with a camera I just built. The camera takes stereo digital images. If you want to see it in stereo and you look at it while crossing your eyes so that your right eye looks at the left image and your left eye the right image you will see it in 3-D.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Grade Change - Part 2

The second issue in the August first Times’ article was the fact that the principal had given the student a second math test which she passed and then changed the grade to allow the student to graduate. The article quoted the mother as saying something about not being able to afford a second prom. The affect was to trivialize the real concerns that many parent feel about their children’s educations. I think this was a cheap shot.

If you look at this kid you can see that she spent 5 years in high school. Her attendance seemed to have been spotty, but she did stay with it even after her cohort had graduated. The kid clearly had problems in math. This is too bad. We should make sure that kids leave high school with enough math skills to survive. I see people in stores all the time getting into arguments with cashiers because they can’t follow what is happening and they feel cheated. This is a sad way to lead your life. You are either being cheated or you think you are being cheated.

A kid who has failed many courses and has taken five years to finish high school is not going to get into Harvard, they are not going to become doctors or pilots or pharmacists. They may work in a restaurant, or in a grocery store. When we give them a high school diploma signed by the principal and bearing the seal of the New York State Board of Regents we are not saying anything more than that they have survived high school. This is an achievement, but it is not that strong of a statement about their intellectual ability. Any college or employer is going to ask how they did in high school. This girl’s transcript is not going to say that she did well.

When we refuse to give a kid like this a diploma we are being arrogant about what high school is. We are putting a barrier in her way to starting her life that has no meaning. Why would we want to do this? Are we really afraid that someone will misinterpret this document? Do we think that some employer will call us up and yell at us for giving a girl a high school diploma even though she is not very good at algebra? The world understands what a high school diploma is worth. It says something about a kid’s ability not to give up. This is really all it says.

I love teaching high school because I can facilitate the transition of a kid from lost to having a direction. It is the direction that is the most important thing. I send the kids out into the world with the statement that this kid does not give up. When they get their first job they will impress their boss or not. If they go to college they will thrive or not. They will start creating the transcript of their life. This will be more important than the high school diploma. High school can be very important, not the diploma. Give the kid a break, let her get on with her life. Mr. Math Teacher, you were being a jerk.

I guess the point is to not think of grades as an objective measurement of students, they are not, but to think of them as a statement about the student’s readiness to move on. It would be great if we could personally testify to each student’s abilities like they do in elite private schools. I doubt if that type of grading will ever be practical in a large urban school system.

On a personal note; I received a 98 on my Algebra Regents because I did not check a problem even though the directions said to show the work and show that I had checked my work. I did not forget to check my work. I though it was stupid to check it. The problem was easy and I knew I had gotten it correct. Checking it would have involved adding 3 numbers together backwards from the way I had done it in the original problem. I thought this was stupid and chose not to do it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Grades part 1

On August first the Times education section ran an article on a math teacher who had had his grades changed by his principal. He had failed a fifth year senior and he was upset that the grades had been changed. Usually I support teachers that do things like this, but I don’t think I support this guy. Of course I do not know the whole story. I do know the principal and she probably handled the situation badly.

The math teacher and the Times made a big deal over the fact that 45 is the lowest grade you can give someone. They should get over it. No one seems to be upset that you get a 200 on the SAT’s for spelling your name correctly. Why should they be upset that 45 is the starting grade? In college you can only get an A, B, C, D and fail. This doesn’t bother anyone. I suspect that the people complaining weren’t complaining about the fact that the average grade in a college is no longer a C. It was when I went to college. 45 is just a number. It has significance in the New York City system only in that it indicates a student who not only failed, but also missed a lot of school. It is not an average. Teachers need to stop thinking of it this way.

The problem is that many teachers feel that they can create an objective way to measure students. Math and science people are particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking, but I have seen English teachers who work that way also. What happens is that a teacher creates an elaborate system of homework, attendance, tests and class participation. Each activity is scored and then weighted. The numbers are then added up and a concise numerical grade is given. This allows for the possibility that a student could have an average of 30 or 10 or 87. This would seem like science, but in truth it is bad science.

You need to answer the basic question about grades. What do they mean? What do they measure? On a very basic level when an institution gives a student a grade it is saying that the student has achieved a certain intellectual level. At this moment I am on my way to Albany to help write the Regents Exams. Students take a Regents and get a precise grade. I remember that I received a 98 on the Algebra Regents. It is amazing that I remember this because it was 46 years ago. Does my 98 means that I was not as smart as someone who got a 100 but smarter than someone who received a 95. Of course not. It does mean that. I forgot to check one problem and my teacher took off 2 points. This is not a precise measure of my intellect. Certainly I knew more algebra than someone who received a 65, but the student who receives a 95 was at least my equal and may have actually known more of the whole curriculum than I did.

I think that New York City might be better served if we switched to a straight letter grade system. I would encourage teachers to think of student in a more holistic way. Putting a number on something does not make it a measurement of anything significant. Numbers are just numbers.