Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I got sick two weeks ago, but I'm starting to feel better.

We picked up a real problem this summer. The girls went to a summer learning program and picked up some bad habits, like throwing tantrums and refusing to do what was asked of them. I thought it might just be a development phase and backed off for a few months, but the behavior has gotten worse and extended to everything they're asked to do. So now I'm having to homeschool them separately while making it clear that such behavior is not an acceptable way to communicate. It's very exhausting, which is why I haven't been posting as much.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Stone Age Board Game

A nine-man's morris board found in Nottinghamshire appears to go back to the Ice Age. People had to have something to do on those cold winter nights.

More Ignoramuses

Evolution Major Vanishes From Approved Federal List

Published: August 24, 2006

Evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students.

The omission is inadvertent, said Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, which administers the grants. ?There is no explanation for it being left off the list,? Ms. McLane said. ?It has always been an eligible major.?

Another spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, said evolutionary biology would be restored to the list, but as of last night it was still missing.

If a major is not on the list, students in that major cannot get grants unless they declare another major, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Mr. Nassirian said students seeking the grants went first to their college registrar, who determined whether they were full-time students majoring in an eligible field.

If a field is missing, that student would not even get into the process,? he said.

That the omission occurred at all is worrying scientists concerned about threats to the teaching of evolution.
One of them, Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, said he learned about it from someone at the Department of Education, who got in touch with him after
his essay on the necessity of teaching evolution appeared in The New York Times on Aug. 15. Dr. Krauss would not name his source, who he said was concerned about being publicly identified as having drawn attention to the matter.

An article about the issue was posted Tuesday on the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dr. Krauss said the omission would be ?of great concern? if evolutionary biology had been singled out for removal, or if the change had been made without consulting with experts on biology. The grants are awarded under the National Smart Grant program, established this year by Congress. (Smart stands for Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent.)

The program provides $4,000 grants to third- or fourth-year, low-income students majoring in physical, life or computer sciences; mathematics; technology; engineering; or foreign languages deemed ?critical? to national security.

The list of eligible majors (which is online at ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/attachments/GEN0606A.pdf) is drawn from the Education Department?s ?Classification of Instructional Programs,? or CIP (pronounced ?sip?), a voluminous and detailed classification of courses of study, arranged in a numbered system of sections and subsections.

Part 26, biological and biomedical sciences, has a number of sections, each of which has one or more subsections. Subsection 13 is ecology, evolution, systematics and population biology. This subsection itself has 10 sub-subsections. One of them is 26.1303 ? evolutionary biology, ?the scientific study of the genetic, developmental, functional, and morphological patterns and processes, and theoretical principles; and the emergence and mutation of organisms over time.?

Though references to evolution appear in listings of other fields of biological study, the evolutionary biology sub-subsection is missing from a list of ?fields of study? on the National Smart Grant list ? there is an empty space between line 26.1302 (marine biology and biological oceanography) and line 26.1304 (aquatic biology/limnology).

Students cannot simply list something else on an application form, said Mr. Nassirian of the registrars? association. ?Your declared major maps to a CIP code,? he said.

Mr. Nassirian said people at the Education Department had described the omission as ?a clerical mistake.? But it is ?odd,? he said, because applying the subject codes ?is a fairly mechanical task. It is not supposed to be the subject of any kind of deliberation.?

?I am not at all certain that the omission of this particular major is unintentional,? he added. ?But I have to take them at their word.?

Scientists who knew about the omission also said they found the clerical explanation unconvincing, given the furor over challenges by the religious right to the teaching of evolution in public schools. ?It?s just awfully coincidental,? said Steven W. Rissing, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio State University.
Jeremy Gunn, who directs the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief at the
American Civil Liberties Union, said that if the change was not immediately reversed ?we will certainly pursue this.?

Dr. Rissing said removing evolutionary biology from the list of acceptable majors would discourage students who needed the grants from pursuing the field, at a time when studies of how genes act and evolve are producing valuable insights into human health.

?This is not just some kind of nicety,? he said. ?We are doing a terrible disservice to our students if this is yet another example of making sure science doesn?t offend anyone.?

Dr. Krauss of Case Western said he did not know what practical issues would arise from the omission of evolutionary biology from the list, given that students would still be eligible for grants if they declared a major in something else ? biology, say.

?I am sure an enterprising student or program director could find a way to put themselves in another slot,? he said. ?But why should they have to do that??

Mr. Nassirian said he was not so sure. ?Candidly, I don?t think most administrators know enough about this program? to help students overcome the apparent objection to evolutionary biology, he said. Undergraduates would be even less knowledgeable about the issue, he added.

Dr. Krauss said: ?Removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid, but if this really was removed, specifically removed, then I see it as part of a pattern to put ideology over knowledge. And, especially in the Department of Education, that should be abhorred.?

Monday, August 21, 2006

A study in contrasts

My 7-year old daughter asks out of the blue, "What's 149 +137?" I pull up a sheet of paper and start to show her how to figure it out, but she waves me away, thinks a bit, and says, "It's 286, isn't it?"

"That's right! Yay!"

That afternoon my husband comes home talking about his chemistry students, "When I mentioned the Chinese working on a space elevator for a lunar colony, a 17-year old senior in the class started laughing so hard he couldn't sit up straight. 'It'll never work! What will they do when the moon isn't in the sky? It goes down in the daytime!' Seventeen years old, a high school senior, and no one had ever taught him that the moon orbits around the earth."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Favorite Geek Quote of the Week

An exasperated Paul Cornell, one of the writers on the revitalized Doctor Who, responding to complaints from some older fans about the romantic elements that have been added to the show, "People! Armies of teenage girls raving about Doctor Who used to be a distant dream. Let's not blow it now!"

No, make that my Favorite Geek Quote of All Time. It just says so much about where geek culture came from and how it's matured (or sometimes not).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Still here

The heat is beginning to break, and we're starting lessons back up.

I'm working on a review of reports about Patrick Henry College. It's turned into the most depressing thing I've written in ages. An hour of work on it is enough to send me into a tailspin for the next 10 days. I need to get angry about it. I need to build up a good head of steam and pound my way though it in a total fury until I beat it into a postable form, but it just saps away all my energy. It's a humongous leach on my chi. So I'm spending all my time on the recently discovered youtube watching sappy romance fan videos set to 80s pop songs. YT is cheaper than therapy and healthier than bourbon.

Do me a favor, guys. Nag me to spend more time outdoors, and to put on some music and dance.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


U.S. Lags World In Grasp Of Genetics And Acceptance of Evolution

A comparison of peoples' views in 34 countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower.

Among the factors contributing to America's low score are poor understanding of biology, especially genetics, the politicization of science and the literal interpretation of the Bible by a small but vocal group of American Christians, the researchers say.

"American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close," said study co-author Jon Miller of Michigan State University.

Evangelicals urge museum to hide man's ancestors

Powerful evangelical churches are pressing Kenya's national museum to sideline its world-famous collection of hominid bones pointing to man's evolution from ape to human.

Leaders of the country's six-million-strong Pentecostal congregation want Dr Richard Leakey's ground-breaking finds relegated to a back room instead of being given their usual prime billing.

Mathematician who doesn't understand history says human civilization only 1000 years old. He also doesn't understand either art or psychology.

I would write a post tying all these together, but it's just too depressing.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

2006 Teacher Prep

It's time to prep Mississippi public school teachers for the 2006-2007 school year. It's a mixed bag, with some good news, some bad news, and some weird news.

Good news from the DOE: The MSDOE now requires that all schools enter all their classroom assignments on the state computer by August 1. This wasn't done because the state wants to be a busybody, but to end some of the more egregious practices local school districts have fallen into.

All classes must now by assigned by August 1. Our local school system has been assigning classes anywhere from one week to one month AFTER school starts, with the children just sitting there twiddling their thumbs for days on end. Then the schedules they were assigned would be changed daily for the next several weeks. The first nine weeks of teaching was always thoroughly disrupted. Hopefully we won't see any more of that nonsense.

The bad news is that school districts that have gotten used to not working up their classroom assignments until the children are actually sitting there in front of them think they have to start back on August 1 or earlier. The new rules don't say that, but that is how some districts are interpreting them. This puts children starting school during the hottest month in Mississippi and there's a heat wave going on. It's too hot for grown-ups to think, let alone kids!

The state's computer program won't accept more than 25 students in a class. This "flaw" means that classroom size is now capped at 25 students. School districts can't cram 30-50 students in a classroom anymore.

The state's computers also won't allow school districts to give teachers more than 3 different subjects or "preps" to teach. That is the legal limit, but school districts have been routinely ignoring it. Now they can't. This is wonderful news for my husband, who has been given 4 or 5 preps ever year for the past 10 years.

The state is giving the school districts $4,193/student this year. While it looks like a lot of money, it's well under the actual cost of providing good teachers and resources. This is especially true since many school districts have to hire extra teachers because they can no longer get away with cramming classrooms to the gills and giving teachers too many preps.

Bad news from all over the place:

The Curriculum Board: The history teacher was apoplectic with rage. "Look at this mess! 35 years of teaching and I've never seen anything so stupid. It's insane!" She thrust out the Curriculum Board's junior high and high school "Social Studies Framework" like it was a poisonous snake.

History isn't taught until junior high. In 7th grade history begins to be taught in a "compare and contrast" model. It's never taught sequentially. You can't compare and contrast something without a context, and the context isn't taught. "Compare and contrast" is the way history should be taught the second or third time the student is exposed to it, not the first.

Oh yes, and American History begins in 1877. Nothing of consequence happened in American before then.

Lunches: Students are to be strenuously discouraged from bringing their lunches. Students are no longer allowed to eat anywhere other than the cafeteria. Gone are the days when you could chill out for twenty minutes picnicking on the grass. Chilling out is forbidden.

Gifted classes: There will no longer be any gifted high school classes in Mississippi. There will no longer be any accelerated classes either. Accelerated classes are "tracking", and "tracking" is now completely out of favor. If the class if too boring for a student, tough.

Since "tracking" is out of vogue, the highly respected CAT test is no longer needed or given. But since there is still a "need" to test, the much less respected Mississippi state tests will be used in their place. Mississippi students will no longer be ranked alongside national students and neither will their schools.

"Class looping": A while back experimental private elementary schools had a wonderful idea called teacher looping: the same teacher stayed with the same class for 4 years. This meant the students had time to really build up a trust and rapport with that teacher, and cut discipline problems in half. The public schools have picked up the idea and turned it completely backwards.

In Mississippi public schools, the students are supposed to stay with the same class every year BUT have different teachers. Forget about developing a rapport with your teacher. This means if you don't share any abilities or interests with the class you happened to have been shoved in when you first arrived, tough. You'll be stuck with them until you graduate. Isn't that against the Geneva Convention?

Worse, it means that the students within that class feel a rapport with each other that they don't share with the new teacher. After all, teachers come and teachers go but you have to put up with the classroom bully forever. It also means the students get extraordinarily good at cheating. They literally spend years perfecting how to send each other notes and signals, and the new teacher doesn't have a clue what the signs are.

Worst of all, because they bond with each other but not with their authority figures, they make exceptionally bad employees. Local grads have gotten into huge amounts of trouble with their employers because they'll do what their coworkers tell them and not what their bosses tell them. Why shouldn't they? That's the way the school trained them to behave.

Weird news: "They told us today that 71% of African-American second-graders would be dead or in jail by the time they were supposed to graduate."

"What? You've been teaching African-American students for 10 years now. How many of those kids have you seen end up in jail?"


"And how many died?"

"One boy got killed by a drunk driver."

"So for the average to be 71%, there would have to be communities where every African-American child was ending up dead or in jail. Wouldn't we have heard about that?"

"I know. It sounds crazy."

To sum it all up: it looks like my husband is going to need lots of Doctor Who this year.

Heat Wave Days

We're not having lessons right now because it's over 100 degrees. Even with air conditioning, expecting young children to concentrate in this heat is asking for trouble. So why are Mississippi schools starting back this week, at the start of the hottest month on the Mississippi calendar? It's crazy.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Summer Teacher Training Seminar

Every summer my husband has at least one teacher training seminar to attend. One of them was great. Most of them are boring. This year he got the Teacher Training Seminar From Hell.

There were three levels of informants at the seminar. The book that he was given, the presenter, and the MSDOE representative. Each of the three informants said completely different things. To be fair, I don't think the DOE rep. got the seminar he thought he was providing.

What the book said: "We are the Borg. You will assimilate. Resistance is futile."

Unfortunately the writer wasn't that succinct. Instead he wrote: "You work in a crappy place. There is nothing you can do to make substantive improvements. You can't do anything to make your workplace more safe, more fair, or even more legal. But hey, you can make it more productive! You can do that by being happy all the time, in spite of working in a crappy environment. If you micro-manage your emotions and spend an enormous amount of energy staying in complete control of your feelings every second of the workday you can make your workplace a more fun experience for the people around you. It won't be solve a single one of the structural problems which are bringing this workplace down upon your ears, but you and your coworkers will be more productive, and that's all that counts!"

While I don't completely agree with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, he got it mostly right. It's awful hard to "don't worry, be happy" when, for example, the funds entrusted to a teacher to provide for their classroom mysteriously disappears after the first two weeks, there's a hole in the ceiling that lets in rainwater which has rotted out 1/4 of a second-story early elementary classroom's floor, raw sewage seeps out of the restroom and perfumes the air, and the principal refuses to discipline students sent to the office for fighting and sexual harassment. Some things are worth bursting a blood vessel over.

When we were growing up in the 80s, the message we heard from the adults around us was, "Do what you love and the money will follow." This came from such New-Agey, fluff-bunny impractical types as the Dean of the College of Engineering at MSU and several millionaires next door. As the Dean of Engineering put it, "If you do what you love, you'll get really good at it. Somebody out there will notice and compensate you for it. It may not be the employer you have right now, but there's somebody out there who is willing to compensate you what you deserve for passion, skill, and experience." In spite of the "recessions" that's been going on for most of my life, I have to say that this advise is generally true. It might be awfully hard to find that somebody, and the compensation might not always take the form you expect, but it works out over the long run.

But the message from this book was 100% passion-free. "You're doing cruddy work for cruddy pay at a cruddy workplace. There's no chance of any of that ever improving. You will always be working for terrible bosses for miserable wages at dangerous worksites. Accept your fate. Be happy!" Not only is it a complete downer, that mantra comes perilously close to being a state endorsement of a religious message.

What the presenter said: "Micro-management is fun!"

State tests: "You are supposed to spend 100% of your time preparing your students for your state's test. Anything else is treason. Your students can't be allowed to think about anything else while they are at school. Even 6yos should not be allowed to ask questions or bring up any issue that is not on the state test."

Identifying troublesome students: "The child who has made trouble and been disciplined is no longer a problem in the classroom. They have been disciplined already, so they will not make trouble again. The REAL troublemaker is the quiet child reading a book in the back of the classroom while everyone else is finishing their assignment. There is the viper in your midst! That child incites trouble because he is not doing what you told him to do. It doesn't matter if he's already finished, he still shouldn't be reading. He should be going over his work again and again!"

Obedience: "Your students must obey you instantly. When you tell a child to stop reading a book, he should not take the time to read another word. Letting him finish the page is a sign of weakness. When you tell a child to stop writing, do not let him complete his sentence. That is a sign of rebellion on his part."

Discipline: "Keep your problem students in your classroom. Handle them by yourself. Don't send them to the office. The principal doesn't want to know about your problems."

Closure: "Always plan more for the day than you can possibly complete in the time you have available. The student must never, ever experience the satisfaction of successfully completing anything. Above all else, never, ever give them as much as a second to rest, think and regain their balance."

What my husband said: After a few days of this nonsense, he raised his hand and asked, "Excuse me, but there have been times when following that model would have cost me students. Once I had a teenager who came in on a test day in a state of total shock. Her mother had kicked her out of her house the night before. She had no car, no phone, hadn't been able to find anyone to stay the night with, and wound up sleeping on the sidewalk. The only reason she was at school at all was because it was the only part of her routine that she could cling to right then. I told her to not worry about the test, go put her head down on a back desk and rest, she could make it up in a few days when things had settled down. If I had put the slightest pressure on her that day, she would have quit school altogether. She was that close."

Presenter: "Uh that's good, but she should have taken the test".

Other teacher: "I can't afford to find out that much about my students' personal business."

DOE representative, glaring: "He did the right thing. That's exactly the kind of response we want to see from our teachers."

Presenter: "Uh, yeah. Let's move on to the next subject so we can get through early for lunch."

What the DOE rep said: The DOE representative talked the presenter into leaving early, then turned to the teachers and said, "Ignore all that. We're just trying to make the schools healthier. We want to get the soda and candy machines out of the hallways. We want to make sure the kids eat good food and get plenty of exercise. We would like to encourage them to eat supper with their parents so they don't get into social trouble, but who eats with their children anymore? I don't even eat with my second-grader more than twice a year! We eat takeout and they get theirs when they show up at the table. What good can we do?"

(Gee, our kids don't eat meals with us only when they're away on sleepovers.)

It was a very surreal and stressful week. I think you can understand why my husband was decompressing with massive doses of Doctor Who every night. "Even the Daleks are sensible compared to those people. All Daleks want to do is kill you. They usually don't bother messing up children's heads!"

Update - Presenter: "Reading non-assigned books is forbidden! Students should only read books they are assigned and will be tested on!"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The dog days of summer are here.

It's too hot to sleep, and I'm exhausted all the time. Brighteyes is fussy all the time, probably for the same reason. My husband is getting ready to go back to teaching Thursday with new guidelines in place, some of which are wonderful and some of which are so lunatic he retreated into Doctor Who for a sanity break. I'll post on those changes to the school system as soon as I wake up enough to write them down.

2005 Dr. Who Summary: Heroes

The 2005 season was unquestionably the best acted Dr. Who ever, with several of the best stories. That said, there were pacing problems; some of these were fixed and some of them were not. The show also desperately needs an "unpaid scientific advisor" of it's own to work with the script editor. The number of bonehead scientific errors was hard to forgive in a show that calls itself "science" fiction. While there's no need to bog the show down in endless technobabble, a basic understanding of elementary science built into the script would have made some scenes both more exciting and funnier. But these sorts of problems can be expected when the crew hasn't done this sort of show before. Hopefully they'll be corrected in the second season.

There was a noticeable problem with overused memes, including zombies, pregnant brides, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. A more obnoxious overused meme had to do with aliens and villains. The only nice aliens were in the 2cnd episode, after that nice aliens disappeared from our screen. And while the redemption of villains and other people was mentioned, it was only the humans who perused that redemption, i.e. Captain Jack. Alien villains were either scene as uninterested in redemption or unredeemable. That is a serious bias which needs some attention.

The season reintroduced/reinvented the major elements of the Doctor's universe and established that the Doctor is a hero not a god. It also hammered home that anyone can become a hero if they're willing. But what kind of hero is the Doctor?

There are many different kinds of heroes, but some of the toes that have been prevalent in pop fiction lately go way back to the Classical era. These include:

HECTOR - Hector's a family man who's just doing his job. He's the one who has to get other people out of the messes they've gotten themselves into from their own stupidity because nobody else will bother. He makes a great sheriff, and he was all over the screen in the early days of film and TV. We haven't seen many Hectors lately though.

ACHILLES - "My name is Bond. James Bond." Nope, it's Achilles.

Achilles is the snotty brat who's never been beaten. He's the former schoolyard bully grown up to become the unstoppable killer who happens to be on your side. He's a gangster with a government contract. These days the contract is usually an exclusive "license to kill" with one government or another.

Achilles made a splash on the big screen as James Bond and Dirty Harry. By the 1990s he was all over the place, played by Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenagger, Bruce Willis, et al. Such overexposure brought out his twin flaws.

The first flaw is that he's unstoppable. This means his enemies have to get bigger, meaner, and more ridiculous. And since he doesn't really know what it's like to lose, he has a limited supply of empathy for others. "Hasta la vista, baby."

The second flaw is that Achilles has no moral center. He'll do anything to fulfill his contract, and only the terms of his contract restrain him. Anytime you hear a variation of the line, "His tactics are completely out of line, but we keep him because he gets results", beware. You're approaching Achilles' territory.

Since he has no scruples about killing anyone, who are you going to put him up agains?. Only Homer was brave enough to put him up against Hector. Every other writer since then has wimped out and put him up against villains who are supposed to be more viscous than he is. Then the next villain has to be even more viscous. It's an unending downward spiral into blood, violence and depravity.

Can you tell I despise Achilles?

HERCULES - The former snotty brat who's had the snot beat out of him. He knows what it's like to lose and this tempers his action. Most of the Classic Marvel superheroes are Hercules types. Hercules may be a whiny drunk, but he usually makes more of an effort to think than Achilles does. He may not be that good at it, but at least he tries and he gets better with practice. I'll take Hercules over Achilles any day, but there's someone else I'd prefer over both of them.

ODYSSEUS - Odysseus is the veteran of the group. He's the most reluctant to start a fight and prefers diplomacy, but he's ruthless when he thinks it's necessary. He usually finds himself in the position of cleaning up the messes Achilles and Hercules can't think their way through, and he hates that job.

The problem with Odysseus is that he can't find his way back home. Every hero spends some time in the wilderness, but Odysseus stays there the longest. Sometimes the journey home is long and arduous. Sometimes "home" is on the other side of a sealed border, or he is in exile. Sometimes "home" doesn't exist anymore, and sometimes the problem is all in his head. Odysseus has a keen intellect. His mind knows he can't go back home, but his heart refuses to accept it and settle down anywhere besides Ithaca. The same conflict causes him to hook up with a string of women only to leave them for not being Penelope. Anytime you're dealing with a "wandering hero" or "wandering monster" (the difference can depend on where you stand) you're probably dealing with Odysseus.

Late 20th-Century American pop fiction broke out in a flush of Odysseus-types after every war, especially Vietnam. Americans never could get the hang of it though, and got bogged down as technological advances made the premise less workable. Britain pole-vaulted all the high-tech quibbles with Doctor Who.

The Doctor has always been Odysseus, smart, refined, pragmatic. He is an Odysseus who somehow could never find peace back home after the incident that left him in semi-exile, maimed, and without a name he felt he could mention in public. He takes up with a string of Nausicaas and the occasional Circe, but he can't ever settle down.

Eccleston's Doctor cleaves to the Odysseus image stronger than any of the others, building on elements that were in original season but that have become muted over time. He and Davies have taken the character back to his thematic roots. The result is a strong, fresh, complex portrait that takes the core elements and builds on them in a sophisticated way. The result are stories meant for children that don't talk down to children. That seems to be the rarest thing in moving pictures, and I love it.

I also love how they've revamped the old swashbuckler stereotype with Captain Jack. I loved the swashbuckling heroes from the classic movies as a child! What child doesn't? But the ones in the old movies tended to be too sexist. Modern action heroes are usually just as sexist (if not more so) and a whole lot meaner. They have no charm at all. Honestly, if I saw one of those guys on the street I'd run and hide. Captain Jack is sweet, charming, funny, heroic, commanding when he needs to be, and definitely not sexist!

Of course he's in the sidekick's role, and that doesn't give him much chance to be dark and brooding. I realize they're going to flesh his character out more when they give him his own show this fall, but I hope they don't take away his kindness and charm. I never understood why I was supposed to trust a mean gun-toting "hero".

And it's wonderful to have a show that doesn't make a big deal over people not being heterosexual. One of my favorite parts of the whole season is where the Doctor runs through various stratagems to stop Jack from hitting on Rose all the time before finally coming up on one that works: when Jack flirts with Rose, he flirts with Jack. It works like a charm to disrupt Jack's intentions without an unkind word having to be said. The world could use more solutions like that.