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Friday, March 25, 2011


Bucolic Academia 

So now my son is receiving mail everyday from a variety of colleges and universities. He has apparently gotten on college mailing lists from taking his PSATs as practice in his sophomore year of high school.  Some are simple letters with a personalized code created just for him. This, the letters claim, will provide him with a customized cyber-experience of the school.
                                                                                                     Taking one of these cyber tours reminds me of a trip my husband and I made to the ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico.  Deep in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula are the ruins of an ancient Maya civilization that disappeared without a trace. According to historians, the city was gradually abandoned some time around 1200. 

Look at the steps on the left, amazing eh? 
It is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site, which entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens. About 20 years later Edward H. Thompson, US consul to the Yucatan, spent over 30 years studying the ruins. The most famous is the Temple of Kukulkan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl), a step pyramid built for astronomical purposes. During the vernal and autumnal equinox at about 3pm, sunlight bathes the western front of the pyramid's main stairway. This causes seven isosceles triangles to form imitating the body of a serpent 37 yards long that creep downwards until it joins the huge serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. 

At this 6-mile square site you’ll also find The Great Ball Court, about 500 feet by 220 feet where violent and bloody games were held. At the base of the interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated and from the wound emits seven streams of blood; six become wriggling serpents and the center becomes a winding plant. 

The secrets of the ruins, we were told, would be explained to us that evening in a fantastic light show created for English speakers. And so, in that evening’s haze in a jungle abuzz with all kinds of critters and fragrant with the scent of tropical flora, we climbed up on the ancient stone steps of the court where losing teams of ancient times were slaughtered for defeat.  
The tinny sound of Mexican music, from speakers on the field, gets us started. Flashing colored light beams imbedded throughout the stadium illuminated the ruins like a 70’s disco in Queens. I anxiously awaited the man in the white sharkskin suit with the Mexican accent to DJ the event and give us dance lessons.  Instead we are treated to a pre-recorded tape of a heavily accented reader providing the highlights of Chichen Itza with the flash of colored lights synced to his reading. 

Unfortunately it was obvious that the reader did not speak English, although that was what he was trying to do. The only word, besides a stray preposition here and there, that we could understand was Chichen Itza (cheat-zen-neat-za). I deduced that he was reading from a transliteration; a recreation of text phonetically created for the reader which does not include the proper inflection or syllabic emphasis or emPHAsis.  My husband and I were laughing at this point because it was completely ridiculous, but for the $40 admission fee. 
                                                                                                                                                                   So now my son and I go on these college cyber-tours in which there are personalized notes and audio/video segments where my son’s name is mechanically inserted much like our tour of Chichen Itza. 

Other colleges send colorful brochures depicting ivy covered buildings and autumn leaves inducing in his mother, a jolt of Love Story, where do I begin --- with the attendant sound track. But to my dear young 16-year-old son who has yet to understand that institutions of higher learning use the same marketing techniques as diet colas, the ones with the colorful brochures look like terrific schools to him. We recently received one of these from someplace like “Schluboygen Eastern College” It had a great looking brochure.

“Oh, mom. That looks like a great school.”

“Yes indeed it does look like great but it’s 3 hours from the closest airport, there are no Chinese restaurants or kosher delis in the neighborhood and no one outside of a 50 miles radius of the campus has ever heard of the place. But you’re right sweetheart, it does LOOK like a great school.”

So how does one select the right college? I remember the process from my own childhood as daunting. I had a well leafed through edition of Barron’s Directory of American Colleges that I spent hours combing through. There was one rule my mother made and I had to obey, the school could be no further than an eight-hour drive from home. Naturally I chose the school that was 8 hours away from home. As far as I was concerned, the less scrutiny my mother had over my collegiate activities, the better and the closer I came to breaking her one rule, well that was a good thing too.

I know people who chose a college because they were chasing a love, guys who selected a school because of their basketball or football teams and others who chose a college because one of their parents had attended, even if they had completely different interests. In retrospect, my 8-hour reason certainly seems just as immature and stupid as any of these so I understand my son’s selection by brochure.

Faced with the prospect of paying over $50,000 a year for my child’s undergraduate education is reason enough for us to make a thoughtful and informed decision.  Money may not or never grow on trees but it will take killing a forest’s worth of paper for his college education. I hope to use those resources wisely.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Outing Teachers

The Joy of Teaching...ouch! 

The world of public school education is finally getting the attention it should have been getting all along. After all, what could be more important that the education of our children and their children? Unfortunately, bad press is not better than no press -- and that appears to be all that public education can garner these days. Up to now, it has been taken for granted that our public schools would do their job, there would be good and bad teachers that our children would somehow deal with as we did, and they all would go off to college and find their way in the world.

But we live with a public educational system designed to produce compliant factory workers for jobs that no longer exist. It has continued without structural change for over 70 years and now the United States has fallen well behind other nations who have chosen to modernize and update their own educational institutions. The irony is that, as a society we work to maintain the stability of our institutions yet education, for which the knowledge base changes as rapidly as the changes in our technologies, needs to be fluid and innovative. How do we institute change when our institutions function best when stable? Whose responsibility is it to implement, evaluate and manage the change needed?  Who gets held accountable? 

Research conducted on how we learn and how the brain functions has provided so much valuable information for educators that it cannot be ignored. Countries like Finland and Cuba (!) have made dramatic changes to their schools and the results are in. Their students are better educated than ours because they have modernized and improved their schools based on this good research. 

One great example is the notion of looping.  In Cuba, students stay with the same teacher from first to third grade. This reduces the learning curve that every classroom teacher in the United States needs to make every September as they begin to understand where each student’s strength and weaknesses lie. This allows differentiation (the right level of challenge directed to each student) to commence effectively from the first day of school. The student and their families build a stronger and more comfortable connection to the teacher and the young learner has stability and understands the expectations and style of the teacher. By the end of third grade, each student is reading and writing up to his or her potential. Interesting, eh? 

But back here we appear fixated on what goes on in the classroom and not with what needs fixing with the system. Teachers are the new pariahs. Our Governor, the future President Christie, has proposed that teacher’s income be tied to their performance as measured, in good part by the results of standardized tests. So then I have to ask, who’s minding the standardized tests? Who is deciding what should be measured and how? 

Recently my son, a high school sophomore and my own favorite lab rat, spent several days taking the NJAsk and provided for his mother, the perfect illustration of why using standardized tests, as they presently exist, is a huge mistake.  Understand that I am not against evaluating and rewarding excellence. I am not against teachers, like everyone else in workforce, earning their raises based on individual performance, but I am against using the tools we have now for this purpose, no matter how you may configure the data. Here’s why: 

For the Language Arts portion of the test he was given two different writing prompts on two different days. The first was a photograph of a digital clock from which he was supposed to create a story. This is just the kind of challenge that my son likes and he came up with a crazy three-page story of international intrigue involving defective clocks that blow up if you set the alarm for 12:00. 

Smart Aleck Kid
The next day he had a prompt where he was asked to argue for or against mandatory after-school tutoring for students who earn below a certain grade. He’s a teenager, knows he has no control over what happens in school, is sick of taking these tests and thought the topic was “bullshit”. He wasn’t interested in writing a persuasive essay (which the test was presumably asking him to do) and only wrote one paragraph. 

Should his response upset me? Should I care that he knows that these tests have no bearing on his grades and doesn’t care about them? Should I want a child who just does what is asked without question? What will the results of these tests show about a student who responds to one prompt and not the other? How will his response potentially affect the evaluation of his teachers?

Most importantly, what do the test designers think this shows? How do you establish a baseline response for this kind of test? How might a good student respond to this versus a struggling student who may very well be angered or upset by the reminder that they would be affected by the adoption of this policy? 

If you think for one minute that responding to these NJAsk questions are all an exercise in intellect, you would be very mistaken. The brain of a teenager operates based in the limbic system, which controls our emotions. This is why so many teenagers make so many poor decisions and can be so challenging to teach. They feel before they think and how they feel affects what they think. 

So while teachers are being held to more exacting and demanding standards, shouldn’t the tools used to evaluate them undergo the same kind of scrutiny? 

Coming from years of corporate America I’m accustomed to performance reviews and believe individual teachers should earn their raises like everyone else in the world. Why should we allow poor teachers to continue inflicting their students? Research indicates that it can take up to 3 years to undo the damage inflicted by a bad teacher.                    
But if the annual NCLB tests (they have different names in each state) were created to determine the learning and skill level of a student as a tool for the teacher, why are teachers not demanding that the tests be repurposed as a tool to measure incremental learning year to year?  Educators all understand that assessments must provide valid measures that align with their purpose. 

So, using concepts discussed as far back as 1989 in Stephen Covey’s great 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it is clear that the tests need to be designed with the goal in mind not measuring student learning but measuring teacher effectiveness. 

Educator Grant Wiggins, creator of Understanding by Design (UbD), an innovative tool to assist in creating dynamic lesson plans, asks to what extent do assessments provide fair, valid, reliable and sufficient measures of the desired results?  Can we really think that a test, that might take a day or two, can measure the impact of a teacher? What about the teacher who has a higher percentage of struggling students year after year? Do we hold them to the same standard and if not, what is measured?         

Christie’s changes including providing tenure by examining standardized test scores, classroom observations and school-wide student performance. But without proper oversight, this will just turn into another effort llke the dismal George Bush NCLB that only enriched the coffers of test writers and textbook creators. 

ETS which writes the GRE (for Grad School), Praxis (for teacher certification), TOEFL(to teach English to foreign speakers), AP tests (for high school students), and The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas is currently working on The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. The objective is to determine what measures predict the biggest student achievement gains; the MET project will give teachers the feedback they need to improve. In addition, a greater understanding about which teaching practices, skills and knowledge positively impact student learning will allow states and districts to develop teacher evaluation systems that will help strengthen all aspects of teaching. 

The results of this study combined with another classroom observation tool will be publishing their studies in the winter of 2011/2012. 

So Governor Christie, what precisely are you proposing be used to measure teacher effectiveness when the country’s largest educational test creator does not yet have the answers?  

Thursday, March 3, 2011


The temple of fresh food
The other day while shopping at Whole Foods, the place aptly named since it can eat your Whole paycheck, I ran into a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in quite a while.  She’s a very talented artist and teacher and incredibly modest as well.  I’ve been to a number of her shows in New York City and taken a number of figure drawing classes with her as well. She is, as they say, good people.

We chatted a bit as one does with friends who are missed, about the time passing too quickly, updating one another on our busy lives, our husbands and children and in her case, grandchildren reaching milestones and then some.

She happened to mention that her adorable grandson, now in first grade, is attending a particularly interesting New York City Public School on the lower eastside in the heart of Chinatown. He spends every Monday through Friday in school until 5:30pm, in large part because he is learning Mandarin.  The parents who participate, contribute on top of whatever is received by the city of New York to fund the program.

In this multi-global world, seriously starting to master Mandarin in the first grade sounds like a smart idea. In fact, when I told my husband about it that evening he replied, “Good for him. He’ll be able to communicate with our future masters”

So if what he says is true, in my minds this all begs the question – Will Chinese people seek out American cuisine on Sunday nights when they too, don’t feel like cooking?  Do I detect the aroma of a business opportunity?  I believe McDonalds is hoping so.

My husband and I are both good cooks. We love good food and I take no small measure of pride in my collection of cookware. I’m a firm believer in quality when in comes to my pots and pans and chefs tools. They include an international cavalcade of brands with Braun (appliances) and Wusthof (knives) from Germany; Sabatier (tools), La Malle (copper and tin bake ware), and Robot Coupe (the father of the Cuisinart Machine) from France: Paderno (amazing stainless) from Italy and of course Amercia’s own Cuisinart brand. There’s more but you get the idea.

Chef Boy-ar-dee
I also have a rather extensive collection of outstanding cookbooks as well as years of back copies of Gourmet, Cooks and Bon Appetit Magazines. All of which are being culled for their most memorable recipes into my new electronic recipes card collection on Bento. The program is pre-formatted for the user to fill in the blanks with typical recipe data including the prep time, ingredients, now many it serves, and directions. Since my household has gone gluten-free in the past 18 months, my favorites and regulars have evolved to reflect this change. 

Chef Chef
But I am also conducting this electronic transfer for other reasons #1 I don’t want to end up on “Hoarders”. #2 My son has requested a cookbook from me before he leaves for college. I’ll just copy his favorites to a disc and he’ll be good to go and #3 I just love using my laptop in the kitchen instead of a cookbook. It plays music while I prep!  I embrace technology as best I can.

Chef Nathan
But I have nothing on Nathan Myhrvoid, the former CTO and chief strategist for Microsoft who cashed out his millions in 1999 and decided to pursue his passions without the need to actually earn a living. Nathan is 51 years old, holds a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton and did a postdoctoral fellowship with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge and he loves to cook. Nathan is not just interested in the “how to” of cooking; he’s interested in what has been called “molecular gastronomy”.  So you may know how to make a hollandaise sauce but he wants to understand why it works. That’s the physics of cooking and what intrigues Nathan.

I share this as his new cookbook hits the streets. It is a six-volume set with over 2,400 pages, retails for $625, and weighs over 50 pounds. Entitled, “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking”, Nathan will make you look at cooking in a whole new way.  No novice to the professional kitchen, he moonlighted in the kitchen of a leading Seattle restaurant for two years. He has hundreds of patents issued and pending and is supposedly a world champion barbeque chef. This month there have been articles about Nathan in both Wired and Time Magazine.  He’s clearly a modern renaissance man.

Nathan has, according to the experts, perfected the French Fry. All it takes is two hours of prep and voila! perfection. Oh, you’ll also need ultrasound equipment to cavitate (create bubbles) the water for 45 minutes on each side of the potato slice, a vacuum chamber and deep-frying equipment that can be precisely controlled. Other recipes call for centrifuges and rotor-stator homogenizers. The $625 cookbook is the smallest investment required to cook like Nathan.

One of my favorite tales involves the egg. A group of his chefs (he employs 20 in his kitchen) were working on a part of the cookbook involving thickeners.  They were determined to unearth everything food scientists knew about how eggs cook. It took two weeks of experimentation but they were then able to produce a graph, which provided temperatures and the ratio of egg to liquid to plot anything from a firm Flan to a runny Crème Anglaise. You can’t find all this information in just one place and that’s just one of the over 1500 features in Modernist Cuisine. You’ll also have to purchase some new staples for your pantry, like liquid nitrogen.

Most new cooking techniques and tools; the microwave, the pressure cooker, the crock pot, have been accepted because they have made cooking easier and faster but Nathan believes there should be techniques and tools that make food better by cooking more precisely.

For those of you who may be interested in learning more about the wizardry of Nathan Myhrvold, I have some good news. His cookbook is being offered on Amazon for a mere $450.  If you’ve got the $100,000 or so on top of that for the upgrade on your kitchen appliances, I say go for it and then invite me over to sample your perfect French Fries.