Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's all the fuss about

There's a lot of talk these days on the calculus listserv a.k.a. "electronic discussion board" that I read. Now before you bat your eyes in incredulity that there even exists such a board, know that there are strict qualifications for even having access to such a discussion group, mainly, one must have a computer with internet access and the ability to create a unique "username" that doesn't sound too geeky (mine is "mathjusttakesmybreathaway". Note: "Ilovemath," "Iheartmath," and "calculusfiend" were already taken.)

Anyway, there is a lot of talk, that is "typing," on the listserv these days, which makes for a very "lively" discussion group. Usually, I can be described as a listserv "lurker," withdrawing but not depositing, reading but not contributing, judging and not being judged . . . and today is no exception. However, every once in a while, a topic comes up that is actually interesting. Something that goes beyond a novice calculus teacher's desparate plea for help on a particular problem they don't know how to do or a college professor's shameless plug of his software, textbooks, or hand-crafted wire figurines.

Today, there's a hullabaloo about whether "No Child Left Behind," derisively referred to as "NCLB," "that law," and "everyone's a hard-working jenius" or "eahwj" is actually contributing to students being "left behind." Wow, how ironic would THAT be!!! Legislators would certainly have egg on their face, like the time the Senator, when asked by his IHOP waitress if he needed a napkin, confidently replied "No, thank you," while his Huevos Rancheros dripped from his chin.

The reason I find it so interesting is that college professors are now feeling the pangs of having to "make grape jelly with the grapes they are given," rather than making wine from the finest grapes available, something we public school teachers have been having to do for a long time now (not to mention eating toast with jam rather than sipping a fine Cabernet Savignon--if they even exist.) What NCLB has done, the mathematically vocal pundits argue, is created a generation of "test monkeys" that have no interest in real learning or real education, that rely soley and sadly dependendent on their teacher to prep them for the next exam. Students have apparently learned, not math, but how to "milk" the system. With our focus on passing high-stakes tests, and devoting so much time to getting them to pass THAT specific test, they have grown accustomed to, in the normal course of their curriculum, a review sheet before every test that looks, feels, acts, and tastes like the actual test.

Who can blame them.

It takes a mighty strong, courageous man of independent righteousness and stamina to reshape the student's expectations and behaviors around the qualities that really matter in life when all the people in power around him are bludgeoning him with "monkey" skills and test passing. When the tests are really more "high stakes" for individual teachers and school than they are for students, the burden falls directly on the teacher and not the student. The argument is that this "contrition" is empowering the crafty, albeit "lazy" students of today to do as they always have done: optimize grades at the expense of effort.

Well, I am proud to say that I am one of those mighty strong, courageous men of independent righteousness and stamina, and I couldn't care less about my students passing those standardized tests that only really assess MINIMUM skills at best and "monkey" skills at worst. Instead, I push my studenst to think every single day. Think, think, think. I even have take the bold initiative of automatically including one of those cute quotes at the end of all my emails that espouses my beliefs. No, not "Live every week of your life like it was 'Shark Week,' but a quote by the wise John Wesley Young: "It is clear that the chief end of mathematical study must be to make the students think."

Sure, it's an uphill battle. Sure it's tiring. Sure I have high blood pressure that's still erratic under medication. Sure I can't wait for the weekends.

But I also can't wait for the weekdays, 'cause I have a chance everyday in that classroom to make a difference in someone's life, whether it be for the better or worse. I don't get caught up in all the petty rules and laws and goings-on in the teachers' lounge. That's all just negative energy to me. So what if my president passes the "NCLB" bill, I can still teach my class and do my thing with both hands tied behind my back, blindfolded, underwater, . . . . as long as I have my canvas that is my whiteboard, and my pastels which are my dry-erase markers. I know that if I do my job, if I fulfill my passion in getting students to think, they are GOING to pass that "remedial" standardized test, and they will ALSO be able to think for themselves, even if their only thought is, "Man that Mr. Korpi is a jerk."

Afterall, mathjusttakesmybreathaway


bob s said...

Well said. A problem with NCLB,I believe, is defining left behind. Is not graduating from high school left behind? Not getting accepted to a college? Not graduating from college? Or is not obtaining a post grad degeree left behind? In todays educational world many folks want not only equal opportunity but equal outcome. This has placed enormous stress on teachers, students and parents. In all other aspects of our society we accept differentation in peoples abilities but for some strange reason we expect/want all students to achieve similiar results. When they don't, we develop 900 excuses as to why it was not their fault and 900 new programs to address those excuses. Well thats enough pontification for now.

LaurenC said...


kwkorpi said...


Bob was ready for that one. You know they're accepting nominations for the NBISD School Board right now.

We'd love to have you back in the trenches.