My Latest Letter in the Review Journal

Yesterday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a letter I wrote about merit pay for teachers, but which was really about celebrating the achievements of hardworking students.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that they took the opportunity to insult us by giving the letter the heading “Teachers Irrelevant.” 

Geez.  I simply said that students deserve the credit for their own success, not that teachers don’t matter at all.  At any rate, here’s the letter:

As the new school year settles in, there’s increasingly more talk about starting merit pay for teachers here. Many teachers have responded by explaining that they have no control over whether or not their mostly apathetic students focus, do homework or even show up at all.

I’ll offer another perspective.

I teach more than 200 honors English students. It’s a foregone conclusion that most of them will develop larger vocabularies, broaden their literacy, and improve their writing skills this year. Most of them will get an “A” in my class. Do I deserve any special reward because of this major, consistent success?

Absolutely not.

The credit for the success of these students lies entirely with the students themselves. Just as the blame for the epidemic of failure in our state lies with those students and their parents who fail, the success of those who excel is exclusively due to their own choice to care.

I’ve never met a teacher who feels any other way.


Grading the UNLV-UNM Game

Boy, am I glad I went to this game last night!  45-10.  What fun.  Here’s my breakdown of how it went:

UNLV Offense: B+.  I’m tempted to call it an A- here, but I don’t want to be overenthusiastic.  We played above average ball, exploiting most opportunities given us and pressing our advantages to the fullest. 

QB Omar Clayton was dependable in moving the ball down the field; he’s consistently strong at it.  Most of the time, when a quarterback can’t find a receiver and tries to bolt for what it’s worth, it doesn’t go well, but Clayton usually makes it work. 

Junior Michael Johnson was on fire tonight, showing up everywhere at once.  He didn’t quite carry the team, but on a bad night, his performance still could’ve.  He’s going to make a name for himself at this rate. 

On another note, one of our wide receivers is in one of my English classes, and that penalty call against him was CRAP. 

UNLV Defense: C+.  Look at tonight’s stats–we dominated in every category, but New Mexico wasn’t too far behind in first downs.  That smells like sloppy defense to me.  We’ve gotten a little better over these first few games, but we still have a ways to go–if we’d played like this against a decent team, we would’ve lost. 

The highlight here was a second half sack of UNM’s QB that practically snapped the guy in half, and the subsequently dropped ball was picked up and run in for a touchdown. 

UNM Defense: C-.  Swiss cheese puts up a better net than this. 

UNM Offense: F.  This is where they were just unforgivably awful.  Their receivers often seemed to be purposely trying to run into the thickest pockets of our defenders that they could find.  They lost the ball so many times that I lost count–one of their many turnovers resulted from a throw that literally bounced off the intended receiver and right into our arms.  It looked like a scene from a slapstick comedy. 

New Mexico decided to experiment by putting in a freshman as their starting quarterback.  Big mistake.  At one point, he threw the ball into the ground so obviously on purpose that the crowd didn’t boo so much as collectively roll its eyes. 

Verdict: it was fun to see us win (for a change), but beating a bad team having an especially bad night doesn’t count for much.  Still, it gave us a chance to hone some promising skills. 

UNR beat BYU at Provo yesterday, which, no matter what your conference or ranking, is hard to do.  This doesn’t bode well for our rivalry game next weekend, and history is already on Reno’s side.  If we play the way we did last night against them the way they played yesterday, who would win?  Hard to say for sure, but I can’t favor UNLV.  But, it would be one heck of a game.  That’s what I hope to see.

Closed Captioning FAIL

Often when closed captioning text is on for a program, the text from one segment stays on screen when a show goes to another segment, or to a commercial.  That would explain what I saw this morning at the gym on ESPN.

When I looked up at the TV on the wall, I saw this text, apparently from a report they had just finished airing: “Rest in peace, Kevin McKinley.  Our condolences to your family.”  McKinley was a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos who was found dead earlier this week. 

But the text stayed on display during the commercials, including one for the new horror movie Buried, about a man who is tortured by being buried alive. 

Actually, depending on your sense of humor, this one might be a win.

Five Recent Articles on Literacy

It seems that as technology becomes an ever-increasing mainstay in more areas of our lives, the effect on our already-faltering literacy has been similarly stark, and it becomes a continually obsessive interest of written commentary.  Or maybe I’ve just been paying more attention over time. 

Here are a few things that seem especially relevant from recent weeks, which have caught my eye:

Thomas Spence, writing in the Wall Street Journal, about fixing the huge gap in literacy between girls and boys:

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

Lindsay Johns, in Prospect Magazine, on why black students should be taught the Western Canon, as opposed to focusing on “diversity literature:”

Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.

[Incidentally, in my experience, multicultural books aren’t promoted by actual minorities as much as they are by white teachers who are trying to “help” minorities.]

Carlin Romano, in The Chronicle of High Education, bemoans the detrimental effect on college reading assignments and literary scholarship by having a generation of students now entirely raised on digital technology:

Continue reading

Fascism of the Left and Right

I just checked out Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism from the library again–every now and then I’ll pick it up and read whatever chapter or two grab my interest at the time. 

One theme in the introduction is that “fascism” is difficult to define, and a simple, universally recognized definition doesn’t exist.  He puts together a usable understanding, but I noticed something about each of the eras and events he discussed that might lead us to see a clear sign of fascism: it always implies force. 

Although this is not a complete picture of fascism, I think the presence of coercion is a major trait that must be recognized to spot and prevent it.  Fascism, then, is not necessarily a political ideology (although, as in the case of Italy’s Mussolini, especially, it can be) so much as it is a means of promoting an ideology. 

On the left, fascism, seen in this way, classically manifests itself in communist governments: the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, North Korea, etc.  The use of (indeed, reverence for) centralized, collectivized, government control is a key danger of a leftist government run amok. 

The biggest myth about fascism (and Goldberg spends a great deal of time analyzing this one) is that it’s also a feature of an extreme, hard right government.  Actually, the logical warping of conservatism wouldn’t be fascism, it would be anarchy; fascism of the right would be less common, particularly in the west, not because it is inherently more virtuous, but because an emphasis on limited government would naturally have the effect of decreasing the opportunities for and acceptance of fascist tactics.  However, that is not to say that it doesn’t exist.  The best examples of conservative fascism that I can think of are all theocracies: Iran, ancient Egypt, Puritan New England, etc.  The reverence for tradition and order can be so elevated that it becomes primary even over freedom itself. 

So what’s the warning here for America?  Are we in danger of socialist-dictator fascism or theocratic fascism?  I suppose the potential for both exists, though one silver lining of a country so polarized down the middle is that neither half would let the other get that out of control. 

One observation, though, about a hybrid danger we might term “liberal theocratic fascism:” Continue reading

Shakespeare in the Bible

I got a strong response to a post mentioning Shakespeare recently, so I thought I’d bring this up.  People tend to get a kick out of it.

Shakespeare is mentioned in the Bible.  Sort of.

In Psalm 46 of the King James Version, the 46th word is “shake,” and the 46th from last word is “spear,” (if you skip the term “selah” at the very end).  In 1610, when that text was translated by the King James committee and prepared for publication, how old was Shakespeare?  That’s right–46. 

So, what accounts for this?  Was Shakespeare secretly a part of the translating committee?  Not likely at all.  Did the translators, perhaps, throw in a wording to acknowledge their friend the playwright?  (After all, the poetic arrangement and choice of words in a translation is always open–no other English translation makes this work.)  More possible, but still very unlikely. 

The best explanation is that it’s just a coincidence–the words are common, and the Bible is so large and complex that things like this are bound to pop up sometimes. 

Still, it’s a fun little thing to notice, eh?


Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

The Worst Word in the English Language

The words that we consider vulgar and obscene in English mostly deal with products or functions of the human body.  Some others focus on certain undesirable aspects of the human condition, or blasphemous uses of sacred terms.  However, there is one word which eclipses all of these, in that it does not refer to a bodily function or waste, nor is it irreverent, nor is it an insult focused on a single aspect of a person. 

That word is the N-word.  But isn’t that an example of what I just said, an insult focused on a single aspect–skin color?  Not at all.  Rather than to merely label a person by something the speaker judges wrong, this word carries with it a connotation of not merely being impure or second class, but actually less than human.  Especially when we consider the historical context of the word, its use clearly is meant to imply that someone is little more than an animal.

That’s why it’s the worst word in the English language.  Nothing else carries such a damning indictment–a clear conviction that a person is not just flawed but entirely worthless.  Nothing could be more offensive, and the seriousness of that definition should give us all pause that in recent years this word has made such a strong comeback in our culture.

Teachers as Actors

It’s around this time each year that a couple of former students, be they upperclassmen, student aides, or simply returning to visit, will come by a class and find me in the middle of a lesson they recognize.  Inevitably, some will ask, “Don’t you get tired of doing the same stuff every year?” 

Sometimes, yes, but there’s also value to repeating units so we can improve them, and it’s always nice to be on familiar ground–one less thing to plan from scratch.  In this way, teachers are like actors: putting on a rehearsed performance multiple times, each time trying to make it come off as fresh to an audience seeing it for the first time.  Strange that students don’t realize how much of this is staged when they know that we teach multiple sections of the same class every year, too; they all seem to compare notes with their friends about what happens in various periods of classes often enough.

And make no mistake, it is a performance.  One of the things newer teachers all end up learning the hard way–and something we all have to readjust to as a new year starts–is just how physically draining it is to be up there working a crowd.  I’ve learned in my experience that there is one non-negotiable element of good teaching, and it isn’t any of the things you’re likely to hear in a college education class–it’s not positivity, “withitness,” or rapport. 

It’s enthusiasm.  I find that you can create just about any atmosphere or character you want in a classroom (mine tends to be decidedly crusty), as long as you do it with energy.  It’s far better to be a negative teacher with energy than to be an apathetic Pollyanna.  This, of course, is hard.  But it’s another way in which teaching is like acting.

Lady Gaga on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

So, pop star Lady Gaga–a trashy vamp so obscenely creepy that even prominent feminist Camille Paglia has excoriated her as the symbol of what’s wrong with American women–has a new YouTube video where she earnestly tries to read a speech from cue cards while keeping a straight face.  This is already serious enough business, clearly, but she even goes so far as to make a bold, original, brave claim in her speech–we should all be nice to gay people.  Wow, isn’t it about time a lone hero had the courage to stand up and say that?

Lady Gaga educates the listener about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, which she then exposes as (gasp!) bad.  Obviously, this slimy secret in America’s shadows is evil and must be stopped.  Thank you, Lady Gaga, for showing us the way.

Never mind the baldly juvenile posturing such a “statement” must necessarily entail (but, alas, is the mainstream media even capable of anything else any more?); Lady Gaga is surely ignorant of the reasons for such a policy’s origin, or the arguments for its need and effectiveness. 

To make an analogy, for years the military has had to deal with a difficult side product of having women in the armed forces: pregnancy.  Continue reading

Idea for sharing the gospel with our less active friends

Like a lot of other people, I’m in the midst of creating a profile for the new campaign.  The idea is that most people out there don’t know any Mormons well, and that factor is the single biggest determinant in whether or not someone’s receptive to hearing our message.  Therefore, the Church is sponsoring a mostly one-way social networking site where Latter-day Saints can post profiles and our future friends out there in cyberspace can start getting to know some of us. 

This is a great idea, and it gives me what I hope is also a great idea. 

We should have a similar site to reach out to inactive Church members. 

Continue reading

Can Kids Tell Time?

This year, as I taught summer school, something scary presented itself to me.  I was required by my administrators to keep a sign-out log with names and times for kids who left the room, usually to go to the bathroom.  A dozen times this summer the following scenario played itself out:

A kid would approach my desk and ask to go to the bathroom.  I’d direct them to sign out on the log.  They’d write their name, then ask me what time it was.  Now, there was a standard office wall clock literally right in front of us.  I’d answer by showing it to them and they, in turn, would then stare at it for a while, scrutinizing it in deep meditative thought.  After a moment, they’d all repeat the exact same motion: they’d pull a cell phone out of their pockets, flip it open and glance at it, then finish filling in the time on the sign out log. 

The first few times this happened, I just chalked it up to their fondness for their cell phones–this was just an excuse to look at their beloved precious one more time.  However, as the summer went on, a far more ominous reality dawned on me. 

This generation has had not only electronics, but sensitive and accurate digital readouts, not only conveniently available but literally omnipresent, their entire lives.  For any one under a certain age, a brightly lit readout of the time has been only a turn of the head away, and maybe not even that far, 24/7, 365.  Analog clocks are not only obsolete to them, but alien. 

We’re used to rotary phones and television antennas and (*sigh*) books being outdated antiquities now, but…clocks? 

I’m sure the skill is still taught to young children, but is it, perhaps, so neglected in the real world that it has already been completely forgotten by the time they reach me in high school, no more relevant than the metric system or square dancing or the words to “This Land Is Your Land?” 

Are teenagers today actually unable to tell time?

I Love Weenies

Lately I’ve seen in the news that several schools around the country are banning those rubber bracelets that say “I love boobies.”  They’re meant to raise awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research.  Opponents say that the wording of the catch phrase is crude and sexual; supporters say that it’s cute and helps promote a serious issue. 

I can see the argument for the supporters very clearly; these bracelets are popular among everybody–men and women, boys and girls.  However, I do have to wonder if there’s something of a sexual double standard involved here.

After all, if everyone wearing these bracelets deeply cares about breast health and cancer research, then, presumably, they would be just as concerned about the equivalent epidemic among men–prostate cancer.  And if so, would everyone wearing an “I love boobies” bracelet be willing to also wear, on the other wrist, a bracelet that says, “I love weenies?”  And if not, why not?

How To Use a Colon

The punctuation mark, that is, not the part of human anatomy.  A post on that would be all kinds of gross. 

Specifically, here’s how I teach the use of the colon: I made up a formula that defines its function.

Did you see that?  I demonstrated it in that last sentence.  What exactly does the colon do?  It points to the rest of the sentence; it says, “And now, here’s the exciting conclusion to the situation set up in the first half of the sentence!”

The formula that I present to students is below.

: = →

Colon equals arrow.  Bonus: it looks like an emoticon.  That dude has warped nostrils, but at least he seems happy. 

Consider this: The answer is this four.  How would you punctuate that?  By putting a colon after the word “this,” of course.  The answer is this: four. 

How can you know that’s right?  Picture the colon’s equal in its place: The answer is this → four.  Makes perfect sense.

Two Notes for Parents of Students

1.  If you want to take off a week with your family during the school year, don’t expect that announcing it ahead of time will make it so that your child won’t get behind.  If it were possible to give you all of the work they’ll be expected to do during that week right now, then what would be the point of anybody ever actually showing up?  We could just have a correspondence school, or do it all online.  There will be plenty of discussions, examples, demonstrations, and class activities that really can’t be made up by one student working alone at home with a sheet of paper.  So, despite your best intentions, understand that taking off an entire week in the first quarter of the year absolutely will put your student behind, and it will be difficult to catch up even as much as possible.  Weird, I know. 

2.  You are rarely doing your children a favor by trying to shield them from the natural consequences of their choices.

Insults in the Air

During what turned into a blogging sabbatical in August, I thought a lot about the increasing tendency of the media Left to demonize and dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with them, usually by slapping a label on them.  Alas, by the time I got around to writing something about it, Charles Krauthammer and Andrew Klavan had both already recently done so.  Well, they said it ten times better than I could have, anyway. 

From Krauthammer:

— Resistance to the vast expansion of government power, intrusiveness and debt, as represented by the Tea Party movement? Why, racist resentment toward a black president.

— Disgust and alarm with the federal government’s unwillingness to curb illegal immigration, as crystallized in the Arizona law? Nativism.

— Opposition to the most radical redefinition of marriage in human history, as expressed in Proposition 8 in California? Homophobia.

— Opposition to a 15-story Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero? Islamophobia.

Now we know why the country has become “ungovernable,” last year’s excuse for the Democrats’ failure of governance: Who can possibly govern a nation of racist, nativist, homophobic Islamophobes?

From Klavan:

Recently, in defending an imam’s proposal to build a triumphalist “Muslim Cultural Center” near Manhattan’s Ground Zero—where, we may remember, so many innocents were slaughtered in the name of Allah—the Left has outdone itself. Rather than engage in serious debate with the vast majority of New Yorkers and Americans who oppose the project, the mosque’s defenders have simply dubbed the opposing viewpoint “Islamophobia.” As ever when this naming device is used, the left-wing media seem to rally as one. Within the space of a single week, Time put the word on its cover, Maureen Dowd accused the entire nation of it in her column, and CBS News trotted out the charge in reporting on mosque opposition.