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if your dinner guests don’t behave, does that make you an ineffective hostess? (from the archives)

One story: this semester, I teach two sections of the same class. One class meets at 930AM and has sixteen students, all of whom are native English speakers.  The students are lively (probably stoked on the morning coffee); they seem to keep up with the reading. The second section meets at 2PM and has twenty-six students, seven of whom are non-native English speakers. It’s a less talkative class and I don’t think all the students are keeping up with the reading.  On the mid-term I gave last week, the morning class earned far more As; the afternoon class had a higher number of Cs.

Clearly I am an ineffective teacher, if I compare my afternoon with my morning test scores.

Another story: Liam’s first grade class was team-taught by a special ed teacher and a general ed teacher; the students in the class were a combination of kids who needed various types of extra help and kids who didn’t need extra help.  One student that year had some significant behavior problems and subsequently went to a school that could better serve his emotional and developmental needs. One of the two teachers was brand-new to the school and brand-new to the team-teaching concept.  And, horror of horrors, in mid-year, it happened that the brother of one of the teachers was shot and killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of learning happening in that classroom, as the teachers struggled to figure out their partnership and their students, and then had to deal with an unimaginable tragedy.

If there had been testing done that year, I’m going to bet the scores would’ve been abysmal.

A third story: Have any of you ever had a dinner party? A real dinner party, where you carefully  invite the guests, plan the menu, spring for the fifteen-dollar bottle of wine as opposed to the Two Buck Chuck? And then the party for whatever reason fizzles?  But other times, people stop by, you order pizza or whip up some kind of soup, the Two Buck Chuck goes down easy and you have a wonderful night of laughter and conversation?

Teaching reminds me a bit of throwing a party (if you were dumb enough to throw a party two, three, five times a week). You can do all the planning and organizing and prep work in the world, but if the guests aren’t willing, you can’t force them to have fun. We’ve all been at those parties, right, where the hostess smiles maniacally and insists that you have another locally sourced organically grown whipped kudzu foam canapé, and all you can think is “jesus, for this I got off the couch?”

There’s talk afoot these days that “all” we need to do to fix public education is find effective teachers and get rid of the ineffective teachers.  So simple, right? We don’t need to worry about poverty, over-crowding, inadequate classroom supplies, or anything else. We just need better classroom managers!  At least, that seems to be the theory espoused by Michelle Rhee (glam edu-gal about town, unofficial star of “Waiting for Superman,” and free-floating reformer). In this week’s New York magazine, Rhee–ex-chancellor of the D.C. public schools–spends a lot of time talking about effective teaching, and she seems willing to let Eli Broad bankroll her ideas (click here for a less-flattering portrait of Broad than what Rhee says).

New York City has fallen with this effective teacher idea, too, with its “teacher data reports” that measure (or attempt to measure) the teacher’s value-added score. The value-added score gets compiled through some incredibly arcane formula that even its supporters admit might be both too complicated and…um…inaccurate.  So, for instance, a wonderful new teacher interviewed by Michael Winerip in The New York Times last week,  got a score that placed her in the 7th percentile—but that score could be actually as low as zero, or as high as the 52nd percentile.  And even that higher number doesn’t do justice to the glowing reports this teacher regular gets from her peers, her principal, and her students, many of whom go on to the city’s most competitive high schools.

So your dinner party flops because one couple has had a huge fight in the cab on the way over, another guest heard some disturbing news at the doctor’s office earlier and is distracted, your husband drinks too much and tells bad jokes, the scintillating new friends from your job prove to be insufferable snobs. Does that make you an ineffective hostess? Continue Reading →

Read full story · Comments { 16 } on August 26, 2013 in Education, NaBloPoMo, NYC, Politics

Malls as far as the eye can see…but what about a science museum?

Today in The National, I’m writing about the speed with which Abu Dhabi is growing: everywhere you look, there are construction sites, cranes, earthmovers.  But the construction seems dedicated to malls and apartment buildings…I’m wondering whether someone couldn’t design a children’s science museum?  When it’s 44C in the shade, wouldn’t it be great to take the kids “science-ing” instead of shopping?  Click here to read the article–and let the newspaper hear your comments!

Read full story · Comments { 4 } on August 7, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, expat, family, Kids, UAE

in which the godless heathens go to a wedding


image source

Old Longtime friends of my husband’s got remarried this past weekend. For those of you in blogland, yes, I know, can you imagine? They got married on Blogher weekend, thus forcing me to choose between…well, between blogging and my family.

My family won although frankly, it was a tough call. Not only would I miss actual face-to-face conversations with people I generally talk to only on the interwebs, I would also miss the amazing writers who were chosen as Voices of the Year.

But you know, marriage is all about compromise, or so they say, so I bid farewell to my Blogher dreams and off we went to Cape Cod for this wedding. Which was great and lovely and optimistic, as all weddings are and maybe even more so for being the second time around for both bride and groom. After all, in round two, you know what’s coming: stinky socks and weird sleep habits and fortheloveofgodputdownthetoiletseat. In other words, you know that “happily ever after” is more of a wish than a certainty.

My kids have never been to a wedding that they’re old enough to remember, so they had no idea what to expect from this one. Their most recent context for “marriage,” in fact, has to do more with the Supreme Court’s decision about DOMA than about two people plighting troth.  This wedding reminded me, once again, that while I grew up in a nominally Episcopalian household, my children are growing up without any religion, other than the rituals they witness because they live in a Muslim country.  Their lack of religious education meant that instead of spending the ceremony looking at what people were wearing and running my own little Tom and Lorenzo dialogue in my head, I was trying to field questions that should really only be tackled by a licensed theologian.

What’s a Eucharist? What’s a celebrant? What’s a communion?  Are the bride and groom Christian? Are we Christian? What’s an Episcopalian, anyway? Do I have to get married as an Episcopalian? What if I don’t want to get married? What are these books for? What’s a hymnal? Do people know all these prayers, like memorize them? Did you and Daddy get married like this, with a minister? Do you know these prayers?

I got through Eucharist and celebrant, but communion meant trying to explain the whole body-blood-bread-wine thing, and that’s where we went a bit off the rails: how to explain that something can be a literal truth to some, a symbolic truth to others, but not relevant at all in other religions. Caleb was adamant: I am not eating that! Not someone’s body, no way.  Needless to say, we stayed seated during the communion bit of the ceremony

As for the rest of it, what surprised me is that some of the basic prayers stuck with me–the Lord’s Prayer, the call-and-response recitations–although I haven’t said any of those words in decades.  I remembered that when I was a little girl, I had a nightgown with the “now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer embroidered around the collar. Because really, what could be more comforting to a small child about to go to sleep than the phrase “if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take?”

It’s as if along with that prayer, the others also stitched themselves into my subconscious, all because my mom thought she “should” take us all to church when we were young, even though she was not herself a particularly religious woman. I don’t know that my life has been significantly improved by my years in Sunday School or my stellar performance as a horse in the Noah’s Ark pageant, but I suppose it’s been useful to have what amounts at least to a cultural understanding of religion, if not an actual, you know, faith.

I know that cultural awareness and understanding have to be learned; they’re not innate. So my mom chose to teach us about, or at least expose us to, Christianity, while Husband and I are making a very different choice with our kids. Sitting there in the pew, as our friends pledged their troth (again) and my kids flipped through The Book of Common Prayer, I realized that my kids probably won’t ever have Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Zoroastrian) prayers swimming in their subconscious; there is an entire body of ritual that they aren’t learning.

Most of the time I think that’s fine…although I think it’s too bad neither boy will get the opportunity to play an animal in the Noah’s Ark pageant. They’d make great ocelots, or maybe meerkats. Noah saved the meerkats, didn’t he?


Read full story · Comments { 8 } on August 1, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, family, Kids, marriage, Parenting, religion

The F word

“You’re a feminist? But you’re so…calm!”

A male college student of mine said that to me years ago, when we were discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s brilliant novella The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the female narrator slowly goes mad, due in large degree to the misogyny of the world around her.

I’ve never forgotten that comment, for several reasons, not the least of which is that no one has ever, before or since, accused me of being calm.  But his shock about the f-word has stayed with me too, because you’d have thought that by 1994, when I was teaching that class, “feminism” would no longer be associated with hysteria.

If it weren’t so sad, it would be almost funny, the way in which the stereotypes of feminists have remained the same for more than a century: a feminist is a shrill, man-hating, emasculating, humorless, ugly bitch with no fashion sense.


Wouldn’t you think we’d have come just a little further, baby?


And yet clearly, we haven’t come that far at all. My female students say “I’m not a feminist but….”  And then they say they expect equal pay for equal work; that they want to choose when, how, and who they want to marry; that they have control over their own bodies; and that they have a say in the government.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, my students from non-western countries where women cannot rely on being in charge of their own destiny are far more likely to define themselves as feminists.

As Grace Hwang Lynch wrote a few days ago, even people like Susan Sarandon and Marisa Mayer distance themselves from the term “feminist.” Mayer said that she’s not “militant” enough and doesn’t have “the chip on her shoulder” that feminists do; Sarandon said that people think feminists “are a load of strident bitches.”  Et tu, Louise?


Really? Strident bitches? I know that the history of feminism in the US has its ugly moments, such as the cynical calculus done by the white leaders of the suffrage movement to jettison the needs of immigrant women and African American women, in order to woo Southern Senators to vote for the 19th Amendment. And no less than Betty Friedan, in the concluding pages of The Feminine Mystique, ranted about the dangers of “the lesbians” who were going to destroy feminism.

Clearly, then, feminists are not angels and clearly the feminist movement has made some mistakes. But to be a feminist is not to want this:


What then, as Freud asked, do women want? Well, in the early 20th century, when women were all, you know, uncalm about suffrage, they had a list that looked like this:

Suffrage 3

Hmm.  Education, healthy food supply, workers’ rights…That’s absolutely a list compiled by a complete man-hater. I mean, only a strident bitch with a chip on her shoulder would make these sorts of outrageous claims, right?

Sarandon says she wants to call herself a “humanist,” and that’s all fine and hunky-dory because hey, humans are great. Everyone should be able to be a human, don’t you think?   The problem is, though, that gender matters. Just ask Malala, or Wendy Davis, or Lily Ledbetter. Malala wasn’t shot because she was a human trying to go to school but because she was a girl; Wendy Davis stood for eleven hours in the Texas capitol because someone had to speak for all the women whose autonomy has just been squashed by the (mostly male) Texas state legislature; Lily wasn’t underpaid because she was human but because she was a woman.

Two other less serious examples: Entertainment Weekly just put out an issue of the “100 All-Time Greatest” in movies, books, TV shows.  Of the 100 Best films? 97 were directed by men and of those men, all but two were white. The same ratio applies, more or less to the list of TV shows. Women fare slightly better on the list of authors: 29 (although Toni Morrison appears twice so really it’s only 28).  Forbes just put out its list of top earners in comedy: not one woman is on the list.

And for an all-time dispiriting–enraging–list, see the VIDA list of women in the literary arts. You’ll want to cancel your subscriptions to…well, to almost everything.

Okay. I can hear what you’re about to say: calling ourselves feminists isn’t going to change anything; it’s not going to fix these problems. But I think it’s important to see that these problems are not individual isolated cases but instead create a picture of a society in which women are consistently, constantly overlooked and unheard. And is that a society, or a world, in which we–men and women–want to live?

Here is an assessment of what might happen if women remain unheard for too long:

Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Abigail Adams wrote that to her husband John, in 1776.

I wonder if she’d be disappointed at our relative lack of progress?

The F word hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had been, she would have used it.

Calmly, of course.

Read full story · Comments { 8 } on July 13, 2013 in Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics, ranting, Uncategorized

Teaching Keeps You Young. Except When It Makes You Feel Old.

Here’s the thing about being a professor: your students stay roughly the same from year to year. Eighteen is eighteen is eighteen, more or less. And the same with the twenty-year olds, and with the about-to-graduates.  Yes, the particularities of dreams and ambitions, talents and strengths, vary from student to student, but in a general way, youth is youth.

Yes. Youth is youth, and every term, you sail further and further from those shores.  This term I realized – with something akin to horror – that I am in many instances probably older than my students’ parents.

Teaching: the only profession where you literally watch your past recede in front of your very eyes.  And, at the same time, it’s one of the only jobs (perhaps besides writer for The Daily Show) where what you do all day can keep you young. Or young-ish, anyway.  Watching students get excited about ideas can be contagious; their enthusiasm and interest and curiosity are better company than thinking omigod I’m almost fifty or how will we pay for college or will I ever write that damn novel or…well, you get the picture.  And because these students aren’t my actual kids, I don’t have to fret (much) about whether they’re eating right, or sleeping enough (or around), or what they’ll do for the summer now that their old bedroom has been turned into a home yoga studio.

No matter how the semester has gone—whether it’s been one of those magic semesters where everything clicks, or a semester where getting through the syllabus has felt like the Bataan death march—I am always sad to see the students leave on that last day. They have been mine, in a manner of speaking, for three months, and while sometimes they take another course with me or stop by to say hello, more often they do not.  It’s as if I got to see only a part of the movie, read only part of the story: I get one semester’s worth of their lives and then they go off and finish the story elsewhere.

When I was a younger teacher, I don’t think I felt such a sense of nostalgia at the end of the term, or maybe I did but I’ve forgotten that I did because see above on aging.

Wait–what were we talking about?

Oh, right. Teaching as a way of staying young. Or being reminded of being old that you’re no longer as young as you were.

Here’s a reminder from a student’s essay this term – the student was talking about a reference in Alif the Unseen to a line from a “Star Wars’ movie (the first movie–the only one that counts, in my book–from 1977):  “This line is from the first “Star Wars” movie, in 1977. Although Kenobi’s Jedi trick has been part of pop culture for decades, it seems too much to expect us to know a line from a 70s movie.” *

Right. The 1970s. I guess that was ancient history, wasn’t it.

Like, totally thirty-six years ago.

Just gonna get my walker out of the closet and shuffle over here to the Betamax video projector and watch a little telly. Got some reruns of “Laverne & Shirley” I’ve been meaning to catch up on.

 these are not the droids you are looking for…

*The student, by the way, wrote a wonderful paper (even if it did make me feel old as the hills, or Betamax) and got an A.


Read full story · Comments { 3 } on June 3, 2013 in Education, Kids, NYUAD, teaching