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Category Archiveeducation

Commentary & education 09 Jan 2015 07:35 pm

Leelah’s world

I intended to write a column about Leelah Alcorn and avoid all pronoun references.

The Cincinnati-based teen, who killed herself by jumping in front of a tractor-trailer on Dec. 28, was struggling with social and psychological issues of transgender anxiety. A suicide note set to post automatically on Tumblr read, in part, “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4.”

Biologically, Alcorn was male. Psychologically, however, she was female. My avoidance of singular pronouns would have been a linguistic threading of the needle — the physical reality made “she” and “her” wrong, but Alcorn’s stated preference made “he” and “him” ring hollow, as well. (Some transgendered people prefer the third person “their” in all instances.)

I quickly realized that it was impossible, or at least cumbersome, to write without reference to a person’s sex, providing the very smallest of windows into Leelah’s world, a reality where most of the people she met would not acknowledge her right to self-identify and to live in a way that felt natural to her.

The best way to honor her in death, I’ve discovered, is to embrace the identity she preferred. That means referring to her not as Josh, the name on her birth certificate, but as Leelah, the name she signed on her suicide note. That means referring to her as a woman, despite the accident of her biology.

When she came out to her parents, who are Christian, her mother took her to Christian therapists, all of whom, she says, tried to shame her back into her male persona.

“… I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression,” Leelah wrote. “I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”

The old adage, of course, is that God doesn’t make mistakes, and I wonder how often Leelah had to endure that line before she decided the pain was no longer worth it. Most of us can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in our own bodies, with thoughts and feelings that don’t match society’s accepted gender expectations.

Leelah’s parents had her heartrending Tumblr message deleted, but not before it went viral and inspired high-profile demonstrations for the rights of transgendered people and pleas for acceptance from a world that may not be quite ready for the challenges that individuals like Leelah present.

Her message, unfortunately, has also inspired threats of violence against her parents. Carla Alcorn, interviewed by CNN recently, expresses the anguish of a parent caught in the crosshairs of a very public debate at a time when she and her family need privacy to mourn their loss.

She said the first time she heard her child referred to as Leelah was in the suicide note.

As a parent, I don’t know what I would have done if my daughter had come to me and said she wanted to live her life as a man, although in some ways in our cockeyed society it’s easier to accept female-to-male transgender than vice versa. With the benefit of hindsight, I like to think I would have done what Carla Alcorn claims she did, which is to express unconditional love.

But would I have tried to change my daughter’s mind in ways both obvious and subtle? Probably, at least initially.

Leelah’s story reminds me that, as a teacher, looking out over a sea of faces in my classroom each day, I have only the slightest inkling of the challenges my students face. Educators, parents, clergy and coaches must allow empathy to be our guide, a tool that takes the place of the dictates of personal and public beliefs. Judgment is not an option.

Something as seemingly small and insignificant as a pronoun change hides the weight of society’s expectations and norms behind it. If the world were more accepting, Leelah might still be with us.

Instead, she leaves a legacy to the realities of transgendered youths that is real and palpable. Her death has opened a conduit for difficult conversations. If her suicide spares others the pain she went through, she will not have died in vain, although it is tragic that she chose to die at all.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 8, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 18 Sep 2014 02:36 pm

Unfair grading

Ohio released state report card results in the Twilight Zone time last Friday.

A Friday release of major news generally means somebody has something to hide. It’s based on a belief that reporters are less attentive on a Friday — especially in the afternoon and early evening — than at other times.

I don’t know what the Ohio Department of Education might want to hide, except perhaps that report card information came out later than usual. I doubt officials hoped to deflect the hue and cry that generally accompanies release of this data, especially now that the state is assigning grades of A through F for schools, because embarrassing public schools has been high on Ohio’s agenda for at least a decade.

Nevertheless, the media and the general public appear to have grown weary of the constant denigration of schools that accompanies state report card information. For one thing, it requires a statistician to decipher just what the numbers behind the letter grades mean. Districts that do perfectly well in most measures can see this good news wiped out by failure to make progress in closing the so-called achievement gap between certain segments of their population and the overall student body.

Report-card figures, no matter how they are parsed or spun, always confirm what salivating data dogs vehemently deny: that student performance is largely dependent on factors that have nothing to do with the quality of their schools. Some research indicates that as much as 60 percent of children’s performance in the classroom is predicated on their lives outside of school, while as little as 20 percent is attributed to direct teacher instruction. The other 20 percent is chalked up to error. (Even if we are generous with this other 20 percent and assign it to school and teacher quality, that’s still a 60-40 split.)

Don’t get me wrong. This 20 percent is significant, and good teachers work tirelessly to expand their sphere of influence and negate the sometimes deleterious effects of the other 60 percent. This is why students are enrolled into schools earlier and earlier in their lives, as a way to address differences that are too often the consequence of poverty.

Still, we aren’t miracle workers. I say “we” because most regular readers know that I am a proud, full-time public educator. I speak from experience when I say that the majority of my colleagues and I are swinging for the fences every single day.

Given the reality of in-school versus out-of-school factors, grading school districts and disciplining teachers based on test scores is extremely disadvantageous to districts in communities that are economically depressed or that have a high percentage of students with special needs.

More to the point, grading school districts primarily on testing gains is unfair to all students, schools and taxpayers because it paints an imperfect and inaccurate picture.

Unlike some, I have no problem with the concept of Common Core State Standards, which have been dubbed Common Corporate Standards by critics such as educational analyst Paul L. Thomas because of big-money interests lurking behind them. Having a general set of goals to which all students and teachers aspire is helpful.

Where I part company with the CCSS and their backers is in the way that standards are evaluated — test after test, a virtual orgy of bubble sheets and computer-based documentation. More and more administrators acknowledge that learning now ends in early spring, with the rest of the school year hijacked by high-stakes evaluations to determine what kids know.

The first few years of CCSS results will be rocky. Scores will be embarrassing, as will the Ds and Fs earned on district report cards. Soon enough, however, numbers and grades will begin to climb.

But when they do, it will be a mistake to attribute the gains to better teaching and especially misleading to assume that students are better prepared academically for college and life after high school. No, rising scores will indicate only that teachers have gotten better at teaching to the test, which they must do if they want to stay employed.

Lawmakers would be better advised to spend their energy and time and our tax money addressing income disparities that increasingly result in a series of “haves” and “have nots.” This does not involve fixing education as much as it does fixing tax codes and laws that allow the rich to lobby themselves lucrative corporate welfare at the expense of the expanding lower and shrinking middle class.

If struggling parents can be helped to struggle less, they will have more time to spend with their children in a stable, nurturing environment. As that occurs, the “educational” gap, which is really an income gap, will close on its own and people will realize their schools are more than adequate to the task of preparing tomorrow’s leaders and citizens.

But that may never happen. The high rollers who are quietly and not so quietly funding education reforms will continue to get rich off selling testing programs and curricula to schools to fix the “problem” that they created, and other entrepreneurs will continue to make a mint off taxpayer money that follows kids from public to private charter schools, where these same opportunists own controlling interests.

If the nation ever wakes up to this boondoggle and decides public education gets more right than it does wrong, let’s hope the press release comes out sometime other than a Friday afternoon.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Sept. 18, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 13 Jun 2014 01:20 pm

Finger on the trigger (warning)

“Trigger warnings” are the latest topic to trigger strong responses, pro and con, on college campuses.

A story in the May 18 New York Times, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” by Jennifer Medina, reports on attempts by some factions to add disclaimers to syllabi about the content of certain books that might trigger strong responses in some students.

For example, a student at Rutgers suggested that “The Great Gatsby” should be prefaced by a warning that it contains “misogynistic violence.” A draft guide posted on a campus website at Oberlin College noted that “all forms of violence are traumatic” and cautioned professors to be cognizant of a variety of -isms — including racism, sexism and classism — in literature that could potentially traumatize students.

While I applaud any attempts to be sympathetic to the vast life experiences represented by students in every classroom, any attempts to label books by content is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

Conflict is the bedrock of all fiction. Somebody wants something that somebody else has, whether that something is tangible, like material riches, or intangible, like a sense of self-worth. Two characters should seldom be in the same room together and agree with one another; instead, they should most often be in opposition, implicitly or explicitly.

This focus on conflict means that protagonists often face overwhelming odds, many of which are traumatic. It’s the way almost all popular fiction works, and it’s the way most literary fiction works, as well.

To seek out potential “triggers” on the average lit-class syllabus, then, would mean to put a warning in place about every single book. And even then, college professors and students might not agree on what content in each book merits disclaimers.

Take “A Tale of Two Cities.” Since public decapitation is still practiced in Saudi Arabia, any Saudi students in the class may need to know that Dickens’ novel hinges on use of the guillotine and could therefore potentially trigger post-traumatic stress.

Or “The Scarlet Letter,” where Puritans in colonial Boston ostracize the heroine because she has a child out of wedlock. Any women in the room who have been through a similar situation (and any men who have fathered children that they’ve not owned up to) could feel uncomfortable as a result.

“The Bluest Eye” may be unpleasant to victims of incest, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Things They Carried” to war veterans, and “The Sound and the Fury” to anybody with a family member who is mentally challenged. Do all merit trigger warnings?

The issue extends beyond literature. An associate professor at Middlebury College in Vermont was taken to task by students for showing photos of people with anorexia in a sociology class, according to the Huffington Post.

While some students and readers see trigger warnings as a helpful way to flag objectionable content, I find them problematic. It’s one thing to have individual professors who informally make students cognizant of potentially controversial content; it’s quite another to codify the practice in policy handbooks and across departments.

Who determines what is potentially objectionable? What happens if a significant majority of students “opt out” of a particular assignment? What if instructors decide it is easier to avoid a book like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and discussions about racism in the classroom, thereby robbing students of the opportunity to tackle controversial topics?

It’s a much shorter step than many realize from compassionate but misguided attempts at shielding students from trauma to anthology publishers marketing separate versions of textbooks to avoid certain themes and topics altogether. (It’s happened for years with science texts and the theory of evolution.)

In a society that is politically correct to a fault and a collegiate system where competition to attract and keep students is fierce, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine some institutions of higher learning quietly deciding to skip potentially controversial topics and books to create a more pleasant learning environment. Students can get through with their assumptions unchallenged and their worldview unrattled. You know, the kind of tapioca thought-process that a college education is supposed to cure.

Originally published June 12, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 29 May 2014 07:54 am

Right of interpretation

Every year, my Advanced Placement Language students write and share “This I Believe” essays, modeled on the long-running National Public Radio series, as their final exam. This is my contribution to the cause.


I believe in the right of people to interpret certain phenomena however they best see fit.

For example, I was driving last weekend, thinking about a comedian who recently said that folksinger Bob Dylan was overrated. The gist of the comedian’s argument was that Dylan can’t sing or play the guitar and harmonica very well, and that he writes lyrics that are inscrutable.

As I pondered this opinion, I was reminded of the song by the Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones,” with lyrics that run, “I want to be Bob Dylan/ Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky/ When everybody loves you, son, that’s just about as funky as you can be.”

A few seconds later, that very song came on the radio. It made me arch an eyebrow, I confess.

One can interpret this phenomenon a variety of ways. Some people might see it as a little tip of the hat from the Big Man Upstairs, God’s way of sending a sign that Dylan is either A-OK or really is overrated. Or maybe God guided the radio programmer’s hand at that instant to make the song jibe with my thoughts.

Or maybe God guided my thoughts to Dylan at that moment to make me arch my eyebrow as I did, creating a minor miracle to convince a nonbeliever.

A second interpretation is that the confluence of Dylan-related thoughts and Dylan-related song is a mere coincidence, one of many that occur throughout a normal day. According to this line of reasoning, hearing “Mr. Jones” on the radio a moment after I thought of it has more to do with the format of the station (it plays only ’90s alternative and grunge, and “Mr. Jones” is an example of the former) than divine intervention.

A third interpretation is to shrug one’s shoulders, say “Who cares?” and just enjoy the damn song.

The beauty of being creatures of consciousness is that we can choose any of these options, and many other explanations besides, to fit our own belief system — and not just about Bob Dylan.

The second interpretation above is my own, but I recognize that many people would choose what’s behind door number one. And that’s cool.

Personally, I have a hard time buying the concept that we should be thankful to a higher power when He/She/It cures cancer or lets three out of five people survive a tornado without also being angry that He/She/It gave us the cancer or caused the tornado. It’s easier not to believe.

But I recognize that many people have reconciled these conundrums in ways that I have not, and I’m fascinated by this, just as I know that some people are fascinated by the way I think and the way that I have reconciled my non-belief.

None of which, of course, will stop people who interpret phenomenon through a religious lens from praying for me, damning me, or ignoring me; just as I doubt that I will stop believing that these same people are squandering parts of their lives that could be spent more productively elsewhere.

And you know what? It’s a big, wide world out there, and it’s much more interesting with a wide diversity of people and opinions in it. If I’m fortunate to live long enough, maybe some of these opinions will change my mind about what made the Counting Crows blare through my radio that morning. But if not, the conversations will have been worth having, and the exposure to alternate points of view illuminating.

One thing’s for sure, however. Whether songs are divinely programmed or subject to chance, Bob Dylan really is just about as funky as he can be. This I believe.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on May 29, 2014.

Commentary & education 23 May 2014 06:51 am

Rape culture alive and well on campus

Prospective female students have a new question to ask admissions counselors as part of the college decision-making process: How likely am I to be raped on your campus?

This is not an idle inquiry. According to new statistics, women have a one in five chance of being the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault at college. For many campus administrators, it’s a dirty little secret they’d like to keep on the down-low.

Well, no more. Recently, the federal government released a list of 55 colleges and universities with open “sexual violence investigations.” Three Ohio schools made the list as of May 1: Denison, Ohio State and Wittenberg universities.

The culprit here is most often “date rape,” which means that some readers will breathe a sigh of relief and sink back into their chairs, with visions of easy girls with smeared mascara who get exactly what they deserve.

The problem with this view is that it’s just not true. According to the May 26 edition of Time magazine, which features a cover story on rape in higher education, many young ladies who find themselves in danger of rape have been manipulated into these situations by a small percentage of predatory males on campus. And some of these men are repeat offenders — not that they’ve ever been arrested or convicted, of course.

One alarming study found that 6.4 percent of the male population at the University of Massachusetts in 2002 reported committing acts that met the legal definition of rape, according to Time reporter Eliza Gray. But half of those men averaged nearly six assaults each.

I’d imagine that it’s a similar story at all schools, where the majority of guys are not rapists or would-be rapists. It’s a small minority of men on any campus that view themselves as hunters, with females their prey and alcohol and drugs their weapons of choice.

The solution is not to boycott the 55 schools on the list. After all, the problem is systemic. Ironically enough, the answer to higher ed’s war on females is … education.

Parents need to educate their children — male and female — to be wary. Guys need to be taught that no really does mean no, and that finding a drunk or stoned woman, or getting a woman in such a condition to say yes, still means no. An impaired person cannot give consent. It’s rape.

Women need to be reminded that not all guys are good, and that alcohol and drugs lower one’s inhibitions and invite disaster.

And all these Dudley Do-Rights on campus, the ones who would never dream of taking advantage of another person, need to be taught that the innocent bystander role doesn’t cut it anymore. If a woman is in danger of being taken advantage of, step in and get her away from the situation.

Just as importantly, women who have been assaulted need to do an end run around campus security and dial 911 to get in touch with real police officers. Many colleges and universities are all too happy to handle such matters internally because it keeps them out of the public eye and avoids any embarrassing PR.

People who have been assaulted at work or at school have zero loyalty to these institutions and every right and responsibility to file a report with authentic police officers, not rent-a-cop wannabes. (Handling matters in-house is what allowed the Penn State child-sex scandal to continue for so many years, after all.)

Education extends, too, to those troglodytes in society who still believe that women ask to be raped by the way they dress, the things they say or do and the places they go. There’s a term for the type of environment that is created when people think this way –rape culture.

No woman asks to be raped, but plenty of women are.

Our college campuses should be places of learning and growth, not of coercion and violence. If you have a student starting the college-search process this summer, ask about on-campus violent crime. Ask about rape. Don’t stop asking until you get a straight answer.

And if you never get a straight answer, strike that school from your list. When we start to demand not only a quality education, but also on-campus safety, for our tuition dollars, we’ll see how quickly profit becomes a factor for nonprofit institutions.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 22, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

education 16 May 2014 01:23 pm

Emphasis on the exclamation

Whenever I write about exclamation points, which is more often than you might imagine, I get a larger-than-average reader response.

Larger-than-average, however, must be taken in context. Generally, I receive little to no feedback on this column.

I’m like the Maytag repairman of writers, honestly. Even one or two emails is a comparative landslide.

Maybe the “heavy” feedback is because so many people use exclamation points in almost all their sentences that they believe I’m attacking them personally. Maybe they think I’m the Punctuation Police and have the power to issue citations. If only.

This time of year is especially bad for exclamation-point misuse. “Little Percival is graduating college!!!!” reads one such Facebook message (with the name changed to protect the overly excited). It is accompanied by two photos. In the first, baby Percy mugs for the camera, his diaper sagging. In the second, an older, wiser Percy with a tattoo sleeve and approximately 10 pounds of metal affixed to his eyebrows, nose and lips hoists a beer stein (filled, I assume, with lemonade) above his head.

Undoubtedly, if Percy attends medical school, his well-wishers will matriculate to a fifth exclamation point. Marriage will couple him to a sixth, and his first child will deliver an unprecedented seventh. By the time Percy becomes a grandparent for the first time — long after this crotchety columnist is dead (a death that will be announced by my legion of fans with any number of exclamation points) and long after Percy’s tattoo sleeve has stretched into an amorphous, gelatinous mass of inky scribbles, like a TV picture in the wrong ratio — the news will warrant upwards of 15 exclamation points.

And that’s my rationale for limiting them. An exclamation point signals emotion. Extra exclamation points do not signal more emotion; they merely devalue a useful piece of punctuation. An honest expression of joy, disgust or dismay becomes a contest. I can imagine divorced parents dueling on social media about who loves their tiny tax-deduction more. Their weapon of choice? The exclamation point. “You think you love Elektra? Your 36 exclamation points after ‘Happy Birthday’ are nothing. I have more than forty. Top that!”

(By the way, if Mourning Becomes Elektra, whom does evening become?)

My own rule, as my students can tell you, is to limit exclamation points to two a year. As I’ve said before, sometimes the rule changes to two or three a semester. The exact number doesn’t matter. The point is to keep them manageable so that when they are used, they mean something.

But I’ve been slipping. I recently wished a colleague good luck on an impending surgery and affixed an exclamation point after “Get Well.” The expression looked too lonely with only a period to accompany it. Last month, I posted a message on Facebook and used two exclamation points at the end of two successive sentences. Somebody wrote to give me grief. If memory serves, she called me a hypocrite and used three exclamation points.

I was tempted to respond, “Do as I say, not as I do” and punctuate it with a bold-faced exclamation point, but I restrained myself. That would have put me at negative-two exclamation points for the year. Frivolous and unnecessary.

I know I’m losing the war, but I’m a sucker for lost causes. In a somewhat-related situation, I am trying to revive correct semicolon use. I tell my students the semicolon is the chocolate mousse of desserts — rich in small amounts, but sickening when too much is eaten.

Use a semicolon correctly at least once in every written missive to impress your audience. (See my sixth paragraph.) Use it incorrectly and prepare for their wrath or, more likely, their indifference. (The semicolon is the polar opposite of the exclamation point in that regard.)

But even the slight chance of reader wrath is better than indifference, says the Maytag repairman. So; I’m; trying; something; new; today!!!

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & education 06 Mar 2014 05:46 pm

How politicians should talk about teachers*

Always use the word “disgruntled” or “bitter.”

Never talk about a teacher smiling, unless he or she has received an award, in which case you should note that the educator is exceptional and not typical of the profession.

Remind constituents that most teachers bolt for their cars at the end of the day. Don’t talk about the ones who show up long before sunrise or stay well after the final bell has rung.

Be sure to mention that teachers have three months off. Never say that they spend that time taking classes to make themselves better teachers and working a second — or third — job to make up the difference between their salaries and those of other professions requiring similar training.

It’s also best not to mention that the average teacher’s grading and lesson planning during the school year cancels out most of those three “vacation” months. Nobody wants to hear about that anyway.

In your speeches, be sure to talk about how most teachers are members of unions, and that unions exist solely to get more money for their members. Avoid any mention of how teachers’ unions fight for smaller class sizes to benefit children and for creative curriculums to combat the steady encroachment of standardized testing.

Similarly, remember that teaching is easy. Who couldn’t stand in front of a room five days a week, read aloud from a book, and hand out worksheets? What teachers in their right minds would spend time crafting a powerful lesson about human rights, or leading a class to discover the beauty of poetry, or working with students after school to master the intricacies of calculus?

Don’t hesitate to mention that technology has made teachers’ lives much easier: Calculating grades can be done with the push of a button. But the time teachers spend educating kids on how to use technology responsibly, or tracking down cyber bullies, or consoling students whose boyfriends or girlfriends have just broken up with them by text message … well, that just goes with the job.

Remember that teachers don’t work on snow days but instead hang around the house in their pajamas, playing on Facebook and watching movies at taxpayers’ expense. They certainly don’t spend any of that time reconfiguring lessons to ensure that learning targets are still met. Teachers might also be responsible for spreading water on roads in the middle of the night to ensure a day off, so of course it’s fair that they work extra in the summer to make up for any time they’ve missed.

Your list of typical educators should include teachers who spend most of the day in the lounge, eating free food from the cafeteria; teachers who belittle and embarrass students; and teachers who never, ever give a kid a break.

Absent from this list should be teachers who call home to check on students when they don’t show up to school; teachers who spend money out of their own pockets to buy lunch, clothing, and even Christmas and birthday gifts for students; and teachers who counsel and seek extra help for young people who write about cutting, killing or medicating themselves.

If you must reference teachers who have the nerve to say that socioeconomic factors impact student achievement, be sure to follow up with a quote from an expert — defined as somebody who graduated from any school in the last 70 years — who talks about how it’s a poor craftsman who blames the tools and how a superior teacher can, in just 45 minutes a day, overcome all barriers created by social and financial inequalities that have lasted for generations.

And never, ever, give credence to the belief that a student’s academic performance has anything to do with the emphasis his or her parents place on education. Because, remember, students won’t keep you in office. Parents will.

Biting the hand that votes is bad for business.

* This column owes its genesis and structure to Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 essay,”How to Write About Africa.” Google it.

@cschillig on Twitter

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun


If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 17 Oct 2013 07:02 am

Teacher, grade thyself

If your job is to create education acronyms, these are gold rush days.

Ohio alone has 49 pages of abbreviations for various federal, state and local education programs and organizations. They range from APE (Adaptive Physical Education) and CATS (Commodity Allocation and Tracking System) to STARS (System To Achieve Results for Students) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

One of the newest is OTES, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, which is designed, in the words of the Ohio Department of Education, to “provide educators with a richer and more detailed view of their performance, with a focus on specific strengths and opportunities for improvement.”

After a lot of hocus-pocus that includes observations, conferences and student test scores, OTES spits out one of four rankings for each teacher: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing or Ineffective. “Skilled” was formerly called “Proficient,” but the PTB — Powers That Be (see, I can make acronyms, too) — changed it because they’d already ruined the word through years of mind-numbing proficiency tests for Ohio students.

The consensus of most experts — i.e., people who make a lot more than I do for doing a lot less — is that it will be virtually impossible for any teacher to be ranked Accomplished. Rumor has it that Jesus, Socrates, Anne Sullivan and Maria Montessori would all be no better than Skilled under OTES, and Socrates might only score Developing because he habitually answered a question with another question.

I can only guess at the rationale: to give teachers something to strive for, a shining star at the end of the educational firmament. (Like Little Ralphie’s teacher in “A Christmas Story,” marking an essay A-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus …)

It strikes me as supremely stupid to tell professionals that no matter how hard they work, they will never reach the top rung of the ladder. Imagine how motivation would drop if I told my students at the beginning of the year that, no matter how much they studied and how well they performed, the best grade I would ever give is a B.

Nonetheless, this is the system that I and other teachers around the state will soon operate under, so we’d best get used to it. To gird my loins, I started rating myself using the OTES rubric for various non-educational tasks. Here are the results:

HUSBAND: Chris is fairly conscientious in his duties. He is kind and solicitous 95 percent of the time, but he does occasionally forget anniversaries and birthdays, and he once left his dirty socks on the couch when his mother-in-law came to visit. SKILLED.

FATHER: Works multiple jobs to help defray cost of higher education. Has moved a futon from garage to various dorm rooms and apartments and back again 15X. However, he once told daughter that she “sucked” at soccer. DEVELOPING.

PET OWNER: Dog and cats generally appear clean and well-groomed. Water dishes are filled to within 80 percent of capacity. Nevertheless, dog once peed on neighbor’s grass, resulting in angry tirade from neighbor and threat of legal action. INEFFECTIVE.

HOMEOWNER: Yard is frequently mowed and snow is usually removed from walkways (weather-dependent). However, fence in back yard desperately needs repairing, front shrubs need trimming, and attic windows are peeling. DEVELOPING.

CAR OWNER: Gas tanks are constantly in the bottom percentile for filling. “Check Engine” lights sometimes stay on for weeks, if not months. Back seat of ‘02 Neon covered with dog hair (see pet-owner grade above); windshield not washed since Halloween 2006. INEFFECTIVE.

COLUMNIST: Submits work on time; has not missed deadline in 12 years. Frequently exaggerates in the name of humor, but is seldom actually funny. Angers people on all sides of issues and never apologizes. Still doesn’t know difference between “lie” and “lay.” DEVELOPING.

Overall, this exercise has helped me to better pigeonhole my unique talents. Regardless, I can’t help but consider the OTES rubric as just another example of Stuff Higher-ups Introduce for Teachers.

And we all know the acronym for that.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Oct. 17, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 10 Oct 2013 04:54 pm

Introverts, unite

One-third to one-half of our society is introverted, says Susan Cain.

Cain, a self-professed introvert, stepped out of her comfort zone last year to deliver a TED Talks speech on the power of solitude. She noted that America today is designed for extroverts. Our offices and schools reward the outspoken “people-person” more than the self-reflective soul.

“Nowadays, our typical classroom has pods of desks — four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other,” Cain says in her speech. “And kids are working on countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members.”

She just described my classroom. At the beginning of this school year, I broke from tradition and placed desks in groups of four to inspire the kinds of conversations that are all the rage in educational circles and to become more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage.”

For the most part, I’ve been happy with the results, although students are chattier at inopportune times, as is to be expected when they face one another. Just last week, after reading an article about the power of collaboration, I instituted two minutes of “talk time” before each day’s journal writing. That, too, seems to work.

What I hadn’t considered is that my new floor plan and emphasis on collaboration puts introverted students at a disadvantage. Now I must rethink an environment friendly both to those who thrive on interaction and stimulation and those who thrive on solitude.

It’s an odd place for me to be, philosophically. Most of my life, I have considered myself introverted, more comfortable at home among books than out in public, awkwardly holding up my end of a conversation. It’s only in later adult life that I’ve become more of an “ambivert,” at home in both realms.

I credit the change with life experience. For 10 years I worked in outside sales, which forced me from the cocooning comfort of my car and into businesses, where I had to make presentations and be persuasive if I expected to make any money. (An April article in Forbes cites research indicating that ambivert salespeople sell 24 and 32 percent more than introverts and extroverts, respectively, so there you go.)

My teaching career also has helped. While I am always more at home creating lesson plans than delivering them, I find joy from a fresh crop of students each year, knowing I can recycle shopworn puns with impunity for a new audience. (Why is the book blushing? Because it’s been read.)

Of course, writing is perfect ambivert training, as well. I write in seclusion, with only my dog to keep me company, but those private thoughts are published for an audience whose reactions range from indifference to annoyance.

Cain’s point is that we marginalize introversion at society’s peril. The greatest advances and insights in fields as diverse as religion and technology come from people who separate themselves from the herd to have breakthroughs that they then bring back to the rest of us to nurture, develop, implement or — if nothing else — appreciate.

Her talk, which I highly recommend (search “Susan Cain” and “The Power of Introverts” online) is a reminder that we need not always follow demagogues whose powers of persuasion are superior to the value of their ideas. The 20th century “Cult of Personality” (of which the band Living Colour once sang) must give way to a world where both introverts and extroverts can comfortably contribute and be valued.

At the very least, it means those student desks must go back into rows, at least part of the time.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Oct. 10, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

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