Grade Day of Reckoning

Third quarter grades were due today, and as I finished entering them, I couldn’t help but notice the big picture for a lot of students.  Days like this are sobering and discouraging. 

Here are two screen shots from my computer, showing what we’re working with here. 

First, this is a transcript page for a girl in one of my classes.  As you can see, after three full semesters in high school, she has earned exactly two credits, including a half credit in the middle of a semester for something called “guidance.”  She also failed every class this quarter.  The large numbers indicate absences.  Notice also that she is listed as a tenth grader, even though she falls far short of being on track–our politicians recently decided to let every student be officially promoted by age with their friends, rather than measured by the credits they’ve earned.  Thanks, leaders!

Obviously, this kid is not going to graduate.  I don’t know why she even comes to school, why we haven’t guided her to another school option or made her more uncomfortable as she slacks her way toward failure, or what’s going on in her home that makes such rampant failure acceptable.  (Her father is an educated professional; her mother is a homemaker.) 

This second shot Continue reading


On Criticizing “Detail” In Literature

My students often rail against what they call the excessive “detail” and “style” in literature, saying things like, “They don’t need all that fancy stuff.  Just get to the point and get it over with!”

When they whine like this, I sometimes think (but never say), “Wow, if that’s really your attitude toward things, your sex life is going to be awful.”

Further On Entertainment Technology Versus Literacy

I can’t get out of my mind how glibly so many among us brush off the loss of literacy as we become more plugged in as just another in a series of history’s trade offs when new technology arises.  We lost a lot of memory when books became popular, goes one mantra. 

But here’s why that analogy doesn’t work—the “loss of memory” was a tradeoff for the higher literacy that was then available.  Books had always been around, but only within the last several hundred years have they—and literacy—become common, so it wasn’t an introduction of a new ability, but rather a spreading of a resource that had been restricted before.

Moreover, the skill sets mentioned here are not equivalent.  We may have traded some memory for literacy, but the fundamental, underlying skills of the mind—deep, focused thought; concentration; engagement with language—was always there. 

Only now, with electronic entertainment, has that changed.  We are losing those basic skills and trading them for…what?  My students, when we talk about this, are quick to say that the new skill set is computer skills.   Really?  Relatively few people are skilled at designing, programming, or repairing computers.  The vast majority of users are merely playing games. 

The assumption which has successfully underpinned all education for thousands of years is that the skills we practice in school are transferable to infinite activities in the real world.  We even teach the way we do with a faith that these skills will prepare students for the unknown, unexpected innovations of the future–a faith that has always been rewarded. 

But what is the transference value of computer skills?  What basic cognitive functions do games and applications stimulate that will ready children for a wide variety—including those of a currently unknowable nature—of skills for the future?  Other than stronger thumbs, I can’t think of any.  Certainly no major brain function is trained by computers nearly as well as by traditional learning and books.

We’re trading an egalitarian, literate culture for an elitist, technological culture.

The “it’s just another change and we’ll adapt” mantra is a flaky one at best, as this change has no precedent.  We’re exploring a dark, mysterious land, and we must proceed with far more caution, or we might just end up blindly hitting a wall or going over a cliff.

You Are Not a Gadget…Or A Passive, Vacuous Techno-Consumer

“It has become appalingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”     –Albert Einstein

Einstein was mostly talking about the bomb, and how we don’t have the maturity to handle such a powerful weapon wisely.  His thought applies equally well to that other insidious invention of the last century, electronic entertainment.

I was thinking of this again this week as I read a brief new essay at City Journal, Adam Thierer’s even-handed, thoughtful review of the new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  Lanier writes persuasively, Thierer agrees, about the need for caution and analysis in our application of online technology, but he also singles out some of Lanier’s major themes and disagrees with them.  In this, Thierer’s review is faulty: when he tries to rebut Lanier’s points, he falls into a trap of contrarian clichés, asserting blindly that Lanier is wrong:

Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.

It’s interesting that Thierer uses Neil Postman as one of his references as a promulgator of the “mythical ‘good ol’ days,'” when much of Postman’s most popular book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, establishes quite firmly that general literacy and attention spans used to be significantly greater than they have been since the introduction of mental-labor saving devices during the 20th century.  Thierer commits his greatest fallacy, though, when he asserts that “despite the hand-wringing and occasional ‘techno-panics,’ we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.” 

This is patently false. 

Thierer seems to base his claim in the fact that technology critics predict dire consequences, yet we’re all still here, therefore the prophets of doom are wrong.  But nobody ever said that turning over more and more of our intellectual autonomy to electronic toys would completely destroy us (except, of course, for The Terminator, The Matrix, and pretty much everything Michael Crichton wrote), but that it would result in a world increasingly sterile in its mental acumen.  Is there any way to deny that that’s exactly what’s happened?

This week I watched an episode of PBS’s Frontline, from just last month, called “Digital Nation.”  It’s a stunning documentary about how the minds and lives of young people have been fundamentally changed by their sudden and total immersion in an electronic entertainment technology climate.  Continue reading

Census Takers In Ancient Rome?

Teaching Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar this month reminded me of the current brouhaha over the supposed intrusiveness of the 2010 federal census.  In Act III, Scene 3, a minor character runs afoul of an angry mob that has been whipped up to a homicidal frenzy by the Machiavellian machinations of Marc Antony.  In the following confrontation, the rowdy gang’s aggressive questioning sounded like something right out of some characterizations of how this year’s census will work:

SCENE III. A street.


Enter CINNA the poet


I dreamt to-night that I did feast with Caesar,

And things unlucky charge my fantasy:

I have no will to wander forth of doors,

Yet something leads me forth.


Enter Citizens

First Citizen: What is your name?


Second Citizen: Whither are you going?


Third Citizen: Where do you dwell?


Fourth Citizen: Are you a married man or a bachelor?


Second Citizen: Answer every man directly.


First Citizen: Ay, and briefly.


Fourth Citizen: Ay, and wisely.


Third Citizen: Ay, and truly, you were best.

Of course, Cinna cooperates and ends up beaten to death, anyway, so perhaps this is less a satire and more a cautionary tale…

The Book of Mormon and Agnostic Prayer

I haven’t always known much about God, much less believed in Him.  I remember one time especially as a young man when I collapsed in prayer, very late one lonely night, and begged God to let me know that He was there, if He was at all.  I didn’t receive any sings or feelings, and felt terribly depressed for a while after that.  I didn’t receive an answer for a long time.

I’m hardly the first or the last to offer what’s known as an “agnostic’s prayer,” a plea to a God whom the prayer isn’t sure is there or not.  The most popular such published prayer seems to be this one, from the 1969 science fiction novel Creatures of Light and Darkness, by Roger Zelazny:

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to ensure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

I also found this much shorter agnostic prayer online, apparently an anonymous work:

Dear God,

If there is a God,

Save my soul,

If I have a soul.

These are honest, searching thoughts–general enough to be universal, yet deeply personal–and I love seeing them.  By far the best agnostic prayer, however, comes from 1830 in the Book of Mormon.  In Alma 22, a missionary named Aaron teaches the gospel to the father of a king in an unfriendly land, a man who had actively hated the believers.  The truth that he hears touches him, though, and he feels compelled to act on it, even if he isn’t sure how.  Aaron tells him to try prayer but, being a stranger to spiritual things, the king’s father can only pour out his feelings in a raw, desperate first prayer:

O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.  (Alma 22:18)

Notice how simple this request is, with evidence of both overwhelming confusion but an undeniable experience of…something…that has to be investigated further and acted on.  How lucky are any of us who have been there, to start learning about God’s love, and begin that journey of discipleship!  This powerful man’s childlike prayer was then answered with a stunning spiritual manifestation that changed his life forever.

And, ultimately, so was mine.  A few months after offering my own agnostic prayer, I discovered the Book of Mormon.


One of my kids and her friends invented a new version of rock-paper-scissors: they call it foot-cockroach-bomb.

To make the foot, you slap your open palm down onto your other hand; the cockroach also has the hand palm down, but with the fingers wiggling; and the bomb is a fist that “blows up” as you slowly lift your hand and wiggle your fingers (and you make the explosion sound effect).  Needless to say, foot beats cockroach, cockroach beats bomb, and bomb beats foot.  Just like in real life!

Teaching Integrity

This was my thought yesterday after seeing a small group of stoner slacker kids commiserating over some new trauma in the back of my room as I was trying to start a lesson, and they reacted hostilely when I directed them to sit down:

“If you actively pursue a lifestyle that attracts drama, violence, and failure, don’t act surprised when your life is filled with drama, violence, and failure.”

And don’t expect sympathy.

I desperately want to communicate this lesson to my teenage charges, but there’s just no way to say it diplomatically enough–I’ve gotten in big trouble for saying far less harsh things.  Oh, well.  Anything I’ve ever said or done up until this point on the subject clearly hasn’t made a difference to them, anyway…

Star Trek Bamboozle

It’s been almost a year since the universally praised Star Trek reboot came out in theaters, but it’s only been recently that I’ve realized what an unbelievable premise the ending gives us: Jim Kirk, a rookie fresh out of the Academy, is given permanent command of Starfleet’s flagship. 

Don’t get me wrong; this is still a fantastic movie.  If anything, JJ Abrams gets infinite kudos for making this story remotely believable.  But no matter how many field promotions were given, and no matter how heroic or effective he was in a crisis, nobody’s first assignment after graduating would be captain.  He was even being investigated for academic fraud at the time!  They gave us an amazingly clever start to the series, but in their rush to put Kirk in charge, they gave us a story that simply doesn’t hold water. 

Good thing the movie was strong enough to survive such a leap in logic.  Can’t wait for the sequel.

William Penn vs. Marcus Aurelius

In my ongoing quest to read the Harvard Classics and Great Books of the Western World, I recently read two short works that could very well comprise a planned pair across languages, cultures, and centuries. Both William Penn, British entrepreneur of the 17th century, and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century, have left didactic manuals of living well, each taking the form of a series of loosely connected maxims. Penn authored Some Fruits of Solitude; Aurelius his immortal Meditations.

Both manuals are typically pious, practical, and assert our ability to master the world around us in some way. However, where Penn relates his life’s wisdom to us in statements of morality so simple that they were probably already clichés in his day (“Be good and do nice things”-style advice), Aurelius gives us a dynamic, challenging web of rules that would transform life into a noble adventure. He may not have invented Stoicism, but he certainly gave history its most memorable phrasing.

Consider these four representative quotes from the first book of Penn’s Fruits of Solitude, which I noted because they were actually among the most useful and memorable lines:

165. There are some Men like Dictionaries; to be lookt into upon occasions, but have no Connection, and are little entertaining.

184. It were endless to dispute upon everything that is disputable.

256. Unless Virtue guide us, our Choice must be wrong.

489. The truest end of Life, is, to know the Life that never ends.

Good, sure, but hardly the stuff of legend. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, frequently discourses in his book, in digestable snippets, on the cosmic nature of our physical connection to the universe (and the peace of mind that such realization can engender as it detaches us from the stresses of magnifying the present), as well as sharing friendly little adages about what to do when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out of bed:  Continue reading

“Equity and Diversity Education”

Last week at work our electronic bulletin board received a posting announcing an upcoming seminar.  It would be a class featuring an education professor, titled, “The World of Expectations: How It Relates To School And Work.”  Whatever that means.

But the jarring thing here was that it was sponsored by the school district’s “Equity and Diversity Education Department,” a section that I never knew existed.  The flier included a sidebar that even listed the names and titles of the department’s staff: twelve people, including two whose given title was “Student Success Advocate.” 

Huh.  I thought that was supposed to be me and, especially, their parents.  What have any of these guys ever done that’s made a difference in any classroom?  Certainly nothing for mine.  Then again, considering the leftist, non-academic mandate implied in their department title, that’s probably just as well.

If we’re supposed to be tightening our belts because of tough budget cuts, I have an idea for where we can trim some fat…

If Students Treated Exercise Like Education: A Parable

Student: Hey, uh, like, sorry I was gone for the last few sessions of workouts.  Can I get all my make up work and stuff?

Personal Trainer: Make up work?  What do you mean?  We do exercises here.  I give you intense, important training for reaching your goals.  You can’t just “make that up.”  Either you’re here to do the work or you’re not.  If you’re not, then you’re not going to get the health that you want.  Do you think that there’s some kind of easy alternative I can give you and it will be just as good as if you’d been here and done your exercises right when you should have?  If that were true, what would be the point of anybody ever going to the gym?  We could all just do the “make up work.”

S: Um, whatever.  Can’t I just get a worksheet or clean your room for some points or something?

PT: What?  How would that make you healthy?  That’s hardly a substitute for all the demonstrations and guided practice you missed.

S: Ah, man, I dunno what you’re talkin about, but you’re supposed to give me some make up work.  It wasn’t my fault I was gone.  I got sick and had a family emergency.  Don’t you believe me?

PT: It doesn’t matter why you were gone.  If you’re not here to do the work, you can’t get the benefits.  I don’t just hand out health here; you have to earn it.  Even when you are here, you’re not working out very hard; mostly you just complain about how heavy the weights are and tell me that workouts should be easier and “funner.”   And when you’re not at the gym, you’re just sitting around eating junk food—you’re undoing any progress we’ve made here.  If you aren’t here, every day, doing all the exercises as well as you can, you won’t get in shape. 

S: What?  You’re not going to get me in shape?  Dude, why are you failing me?  I’m here!  I’m working!  I shouldn’t be punished for the workouts I missed!  Just let me be in shape!

PT: Punish you for missing workouts?  Let you be in shape?  Do you seriously not understand how nature works?  I can’t just automatically give you the knowledge, skills, and benefits that everybody is supposed to work hard a long time for.  Right now you’re overweight, weak, and sickly.  I can’t just wave a wand and change that. 

S: Hey, that’s not nice!  You can’t say that!

PT: Kid, it’s not an insult, it’s just the truth.  I’m sorry if everybody else is dodging that just to make you feel good, but in the end, that’ll just lead to you getting some nasty surprises in life, like when you try to climb a flight of stairs and find out the hard way that you won’t be able to.  It’s just reality and I’m trying to help you.  You’ll never get in better shape unless you realize that you’re out of shape now.  If you really want to be healthy, you’ll have to work hard.  In fact, you’ll have to work harder and longer than your peers at the gym because you’re so far behind. 

S:  What?  That’s not fair!  Why do you hate me?  Look, just give me my make up work!

PT: Alright.  If you want to catch up, you’ll have to start doing all the normal workouts—every day—and stay later so you can spend extra time doing all the exercises you’ve missed out on.  Then, maybe, you’ll be able to get healthy by the time the year is over. 

S: Ah, man, I don’t care that much.  I’ll just do an online workout or summer gym. 


Other education-related satire:

Presenting the Modern Gym!

The Great Grade Bailout

On The Motives Of Missionaries

I just sent the following email to the host of a radio medical show I often hear, The Dr. Dean Edell Show:

Dear Dr. Edell,

I often catch your show here in Las Vegas on KXNT 840 AM, and enjoy all the common sense and research-based information you share. Yesterday, though, you remarked about a caller’s comments regarding religions that seek to convert others, suggesting that they are “insecure,” and implying that people who attempt to spread their beliefs are, perhaps, infringing on others.

As a member of a religion which is famous for assertively reaching out to others with our beliefs–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church–I’d like to explain why we do so. I only hope for us to each understand where the other is coming from.

Our primary sacred texts, the Bible and the Book of Mormon, both speak of the joy of conversion. You’re probably familiar with the Bible, so I’ll share some insights from the Book of Mormon.

After one great leader has taught the gospel to his people, they respond: “Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth….whereby we do rejoice with such exceedingly great joy.” (Mosiah 5:2-4)

This happiness is not only reserved for the new believer, though; the teacher gets to enjoy this feeling, also. Continue reading

Teachers Are Famous

It still never fails to impress me just how often I see kids from school out in “the real world,” or how often our lives intersect.  Just in the last two months:

  • A girl I had in a class two years ago passed me in the hall at school recently and told me that she had just found out that I go to church in the same ward as her sister.  Small world!
  • My mom, who is working with the census, met a young woman at a training meeting who, after she learned my mom’s last name, told her that she’d had an English teacher with that name.  When she learned that it was my mom she was talking to, she got so excited she had to call a friend to tell her that she had just met Mr. Huston’s mom.
  • In January, I got an email from a woman who said she’d had me for a class at Las Vegas High School eight years ago.  She said that I probably wouldn’t remember her, but she and her husband had been looking at UNLV’s web site to find someone to help her husband with his graduate school application, and she had seen my name and emailed me.  I responded that I did remember her: she had given me a graduation announcement.  I think I still have it. 
  • Last week my wife went by a drive thru to pick us up a snack for date night after taking the babysitter home.  When she handed her debit card to the cashier, he looked at it and said, “Huston?  Like Mr. Huston, the English teacher?”  When she told him that I’m her husband, he lit up and started talking about my class. 

And that’s all in the last two months.  Things like this happen to teachers all the time.  I’ve run into students and former students at stores, the library, restaurants, an ice skating rink, the mall, events at my kids’ schools, and once at a musical on the Strip.  Two years ago a pair of kids from one of my classes noticed me in a huge picture of extended family from a reunion that was hanging in their uncle’s house–apparently we’re related. 

I live twenty minutes away from the school where I now work–well outside our attendance zone–but last month as I walked out the front door to my car, a voice came from a group of boys across the street, playing basketball as these friends often do, saying, “Mr. Huston?”  A young man I’d had in a class a couple of years ago just happened to be friends with the boy across the street, and was over to shoot hoops when I’d walked out. 

Being a teacher seems to encourage serendipity.