Tuesday, December 27, 2005

my schooling

I hope you all have had a great holidays so far. I have had a good old time here at home in Minnesota (yes, it is cold, people). Surprisingly, we do have computers in Minnesota, and just recently moved into real houses from our igloos.

My dad and I were rehashing some of the issues I've discussed on this blog the other night. (By the way, it's been made empirically certain that I got the ranting gene from him. Not that my Mm is too shabby at it either. I love you guys!). We actually got to discussing my own education, which was an interesting comparison to what I've been doing this year.

I went to my local public high school here in Minnesota. We live in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis that is known for its good schools, which is why my parents chose to live here. In fact, the high property values here are largely based on the reputation of the school system. This gives incentive to older residents and those without children to vote for high levels of funding for the school system, despite the fact that they themselves do not partake of it. Thus, local referenda on increases to school funding usually pass quite easily. (One exeption is our crotchety right-wing neighbor, who doesn't see why he has to contribute to the education of the pesky kids of the neighborhood. Personally, I think he's just bitter because they discovered that the haunted park monster is really this guy in a mummy suit. Pesky kids.)

Anyway, my school was pretty good. They offered AP Biology, AP American History, AP European History, AP Calculus, AP American Literature, and a variety of AP languages. Kids could choose to take these advanced classes or not. The only tracked subject was math. Teachers were smart and competent (with notable exceptions. One of my teachers would regularly let my friend leave class to drive somewhere and buy bagels. And another time we spent an entire class period searching for textbooks that some kid had hidden in the ceiling). Administrators were proud of the academics (although not as proud as they were of the sports) and tried to protect them. I am grateful for the education I got there.

Still, overall, I don't think it was enough. This was supposed to be the best public high school in our state. But when I got to college (I went to a good one), I realized that I couldn't really cut it in the areas of science and math. Granted, I'm not exactly a whiz at either of these subjects, and they aren't my passion. Still, compared to kids who went to private schools or magnet schools, I was definitely behind. And compared to kids from other countries, I was definitely definitely behind. The entire math department at my school was dominated by foreigners, to the point where they couldn't find PhD students who spoke good English to teach intro math classes. The biggest complaint I heard about calculus classes was not that they were so difficult, but that the students couldn't understand what their teacher was saying. Most were from Asian countries and had very thick accents. I had a German dude who was reasonably understandable. But also freaky in a German grad student/robot kind of way.

As a freshman, I was still ambitious and over-confident in my academic skills. I was still in small-school Minnesota mindset, as opposed to world-class university mindset, which is "if it's math and science, you probably can't do it." I took a multi-variable caculus class and an advanced general chemistry class. It was the worst semester of my life. Multi-variable calculus was extremely difficult, mostly because it was taught in a completely different way than any of my high school math classes. Our textbook did not walk one through the problems. Problem sets had to be solved by combining different theorems and procedures in creative ways. Class met only three days a week, and the lectures were fast-paced. You had to give yourself the quizzes. There were only two tests, and they were impossible. I got decent grades, but only because the curve was so incredibly generous that a trained gerbil would have had to struggle only slightly to pass. For example, on the midterm exam, a 22 out of 100 was a D. A 56 out of 100 was an A-.

My chemistry class was worse, for me. I had taken only an intro type chemistry class in high school. My advisor, who was clearly a sadist, told me to take the advanced one anyway. I struggled. I went in for office hours, I asked my friends how to do things, I cried, and I worked all the time. I did ok...I was really proud of my B-.

I don't know...maybe it's just that I'm not talented in these areas. But still, I think that it was generally just difficult for me to cut it at my college based on the preparation I had been given. I think if my math and science education had been more rigorous, or even if there was a more rigorous option available, I could have survived and even though about majoring in one of those subjects. As it was, an "ordinary" student like me would not think of doing that. It was a small elite, at least among the American students, who could cut it.

Let me know what you think about this issue. I would like to know what the situation was like at other colleges.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Transit strike looms in New York. If it happens, and all the bus and subway operators walk out, tomorrow will be known as The Day Convenience Died. You won't be able to get into Manhattan without 4 people in your car. There will be areas to pick up extra people if you don't have enough. Taxis can carry multiple people at one time. Otherwise, you have to walk or bike. This all sounds really great, until you remember that 7 million people come into and out of the city every day on public transit. Life is going to suuuuuuck.

The transit worker's union is being ridiculous. They already get paid like $55,000 a year, which is more than most teachers. They get free health care and a pension when they turn 55. Now, I don't know how much training and work it takes to drive a bus or subway, but I can tell you that the only requirement for being a station attendant is surly unhelpfulness.

Now, I'm all for public employees being compensated well and having happy lives, and I wouldn't ask that anyone would reduce their salaries. But the union is now asking for an 8% salary raise over 3 years PLUS a retirement age of 50! 50!!! No one gets to retire then! Anyway, I'm probably just bitter because I don't like to do a lot of walking. Standing is also somewhat inconvenient.

Today my methods class ended. I have to admit that I did learn some useful things in the class. BUT I am still going to insist upon right answers. Somehow that has come to be a controversial position.

I only have one more assignment to complete. Then freedom will ring from the mountaintops and whatnot. All my Christmas presents for others will soon arrive in the mail. Online shopping, by the way, is definitely awesome. Today I spent 45 minutes in line at Express buying a velour sweatshirt for my friend. She wanted it because she had already bought it a couple months ago, then lost it. The point is, waiting in line at Express for 45 minutes is excruciating, especially with LITE104 serenading you. The internet, wave of the future. World wide web. Information superhighway. You know what I'm talking about.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Holiday cheer

For two weeks now, my thighs have had laptop imprints on them. At least my couch is a comfortable, fuzzy place to whip out sub-par work (that, I promise you, will receive A's) on silly, pointless final papers. I now only have two things left. But one of them is going to be painful. It's a reflection on my fall student teaching placement. I don't even know what to say anymore. Here's one of the "guiding questions" that we're supposed to answer: "What are the norms, practices, rituals, customs, values, power structures, group affiliations, and status systems that define and shape your classroom setting?" I wonder if "none of the above" could be a correct answer to that.

I should say that not all the assignments were pointless. For my history class, we had to write a syllabus for a world history course. Here in NY state, 9th and 10th graders take a 2 year global history curriculum, tied to a regents exam. Here's one thing I learned while writing this syllabus: lots of stuff has happened in the history of the world. Who would've known?

I also learned that, contrary to popular belief, the histories of pre-Columbian America and pre-totally impoverished Africa are quite interesting and complex. For example, when the British first tried to colonize sub-tropical Africa in the 19th century, they kept settling near low-lying swamps with malarial mosquitoes. They were all dying off. In contrast, native Africans would settle in high-lying areas with few mosquitoes, and many had acquired immunity over many generations (sickle-cell anemia, common in African-Americans, is actually an African genetic adaptation that prevents malaria from infecting blood cells). And the British also couldn't get past the fierce, spear- and sword-wielding Zulu warriors, who they found absolutely terrifying. Unfortunately for everyone, Europeans soon discovered that quinine was an effective prophylactic against malaria, and that machine guns were quite effective against spears. And the colonial fun began. But it's ok, because these days everything is Africa is juuuuuuuuust fine.

Bill and Melinda Gates (and Bono!! hilarious!!) were just named People of the Year by Time magazine for their work in Africa. Gates just announced $400 million in new funding to what I like to call "wacky science." They're projects that normal institutions like the NIH or whatever don't want to fund because they're too "wacky" and their chances for success are too low. But at the same time, they are projects that, if successful, could have a huge impact. Like, some guys are trying to genetically modify mosquitos so that they can't smell humans and thus won't be able to infect them with malaria. Another guy is trying to modify cassava roots so that they have protein and vitamins, instead of just starch. It's cool stuff. Bono, meanwhile, wears awesome sunglasses while totally rocking out for the less advantaged. And people have paid attention, because people with one name have a certain je ne se quois (think Cher). That is phonetic French that I just made up. My mom said that taking French would be pointless. The fourth grade me pointed out that Peru is a French-speaking country, but that just didn't seem to convince her. Where fourth-grade me picked up that little gem of knowledge is still a mystery.

As for the Americas, I'm reading a really interesting book called 1491, about American civilizations that rose and fell after colonization of the Americas from Asia. The guy who wrote it definitely has a political agenda and a true "stick it to whitey" type of attitude, but he's a great writer and he presents recent archaeological and genetic findings. The new research is starting to reveal an America teeming with people with interesting, complex cultures and societies. It seems that many, many more Americans were killed by European diseases than was once thought. Like, maybe 90%. Which would make pre-Columbian population numbers in America as high or higher than those in Europe at the time. Anyway, you should read the book and decide for yourself.

Here's another question I have to answer in my reflection paper: "How have collaborative efforts affected your teaching this semester?" Do you think I can say, "They made me want to forego being alive, but, seeing as how that is impractical as well as life-threatening, I chose to pretend that collaborative efforts were not occuring"? I'm thinking I should go a little milder.

I missed my department's holiday party last week. I was sad, because they promised karaoke and I wanted to make inappropriate comments about various staff members. But I went to Boston instead, to see my kids from last year at MATCH. And it was the best part of my year so far. My kids are doing well and were happy to see me, the school is doing great, everything was as it should be. It's so, so good and soul-affirming to go to a place like that, where there are smart people trying to solve problems that arise and who don't take on a fatalistic attitude about everything. And I would like to note that many of the kids who failed ninth grade and are repeating are doing quite well, both in behavior and in academics, the second time around. It's like the poster school for failing a grade. I also got to go to the faculty party and watch a few people get a little too merry (you know who you are, people).

I'm going to try and start writing more regularly again. I don't want to be a complainer, so I will just try to observe and comment. For example, I may say, "there are many, many tiny dogs that live in New York, and I hate them." So that's the kind of pithiness you can look forward to.