Monday, August 21, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Brain

The world of modern educational administration will probably not soon be accused by anyone who understands it as being overly bogged down by an insistence upon using common sense as any sort of a barometer. Anyone with much of a sense of awareness who has been in the public school system in the past fifteen years or so should be able to identify with this concept. I would suspect that such has been the case for far longer than fifteen years, but I cannot speak from personal experience with much authority about things that happened in the school systems before I was seven years of age. Likewise, the same might be fairly said of most private school systems, but because I spent only two of my kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade years in private schools of any kind, I cannot form valid conclusions about even the parochial system I attended for the two years I did not attend public schools, much less about private school education as a whole. I will, however,  speak with apologies to no one in terms of much of the madness I have seen with my own eyes.

A mid-sized school district that I attended very briefly and in which I worked even more briefly as a substitute teacher has a superintendent who would be described as cautious. Caution with regard to other people's children entrusted to one's care is generally a good thing. School district personnel are charged with acting in loco parentis, or in place of the parent. The welfare of children should be first and foremost in the minds of school personnel in dictating policy.
All reasonable efforts should be made to safeguard students. Reasonable is a key concept. Because individuals, including children, have the volition to act, and because forces of nature can come into play, no one's safety can be one-hundred per cent guaranteed. Furthermore, what might be the safest policy in terms of injury prevention may not be the safest in terms of facilitation of learning, in terms of student emotional well-being, or in terms of overall wellness and disease prevention.

For example, students can be injured in a variety of ways while playing on a playground. On the other hand, students can develop life-long sedentary habits that lead to poor overall fitness and even to serious cardiovascular disease if they are not allowed or encouraged to take part in physical play. What is a reasonable course of action in response to this? The most reasonable course of action is to remove the greatest contraindications to safety from a playground, to provide competent supervision to students while on the playground, and then to encourage students to move about freely and to play. Even though trampolines offer many developmental and cardiovascular fitness-related benefits, they can be dangerous for large groups of children. Trampolines, therefore, are not typically found on school playgrounds. Along similar lines, the sport of archery has its benefits, as do lawn darts, but neither of those are typically found on school playgrounds for obvious reason. Common sense has prevailed in the balance between physical activity and safety.

Bad things sometimes happen when students interact with each other. Sometimes students disagree, and the disagreements can become physical, which on occasion has led to injury. Sometimes children say things that hurt other children's feelings, and sometimes bullying between students happens. School personnel could conclude that the risk of physical or emotional harm might possibly happen as a result of student interaction. They could ban all student interaction at school. They don't, however; in addition to bad things that might happen, good things can and usually do happen as a result of interaction between students. Furthermore, students will eventually have to interact with others. If children and youth are not allowed to interact while in school, where will they learn to deal with each other? For those reasons, it would be considered ludicrous to attempt to ban interactions between young people at school despite the realization that bad things sometimes happen as a result. School personnel provide supervision in order to mitigate damage happening as a result of student interactions, but students are allowed and even encouraged to interact. Once again, common sense has prevailed in the balance between student interaction and the need for physical and emotional well-being.

If I stopped there, a person might conclude that common sense is a major guiding factor in the dictation of school policy. The person would be sadly mistaken, at least with regard to the  particular school I mentioned earlier. Allow me to elaborate.

When I worked as a substitute teacher, the students were working on the geometric concept of determining the areas of triangles. We all remember that the area of a triangle equals one half of the product of the base and the height in square units. If a triangle's height is four inches (The term height is used as opposed to length to differentiate between the length of one of the other sides in a three-sided object; the height is the number of units between the base or bottom and the  point or vertex at which the other two sides meet. Any of a triangle's three sides can be designated as the base with the same result being reached) and the base is five inches in length, four and five would be multiplied, then divided by two. The answer would be ten square inches, with the term square being used because when multiplying perpendicular units, square units result.

We all have sufficient background knowledge to comprehend that any given triangle is one-half of the surface area of a rectangle (one with the dimensions of its base multiplied by its height). Most nine- or ten-year-old children don't approach the lesson with that level of background knowledge. In the olden days, a child would simply have been told that  base times height over or divided by two is how the area of a triangle is calculated, period. Commit it to memory, kid. It didn't seem to matter whether a kid understood why it was that one-half of (the base times the height) equaled the area of the triangle. It was taught with no thought to concrete understanding or conceptualization.

While I am critical of many modern trends in education, and while I feel that educators have taken many good ideas and have extended them too far, it makes perfect sense to attempt to conceptualize an idea for children. If  child understands why it is that the area off a triangle is the one-half of the base times the height, the child is more likely both to remember the algorithm and to have some idea if his calculation is way off. If objects have been used in repeated attempts to objectify a concept, and if the child still cannot grasp the why of the concept, at some point a teacher almost has to use the old base times height over or divided by two is how the area of a triangle is calculated, period, with the hope that someday in the future, if it is explained again, the child may grasp it. The child cannot be left behind because he cannot understand the underlying concept. He has to learn the concept even if he doesn't grasp the underlying reason. Some of today's educators would say the child is not to be taught the algorithm until he understands the reasoning behind it. The problem with this philosophy is that if the child has trouble understanding this, he may have trouble understanding many other concepts as well. By the time he grasps the underlying reason for any of them, he's years behind his classmates in learning the basic math. He cannot afford to be that far behind; he has to be taught what to do to reach the correct answer even if he doesn't understand why it is that we do it the way we do.

So, because a teacher was out for a complete week, she had to leave it to me, her substitute, to teach the concept and the method of determining the area of a triangle. The teacher had a sudden case of appendicitis (as is typical with appendicitis) and did not know in advance that a substitute would be teaching the lesson plans that she wrote for herself.  Had she known, she might have given me different ways to teach the concept. I attempted to use what seemed to be the logical way of teaching it. I cut a paper into a triangle. I used the standard algorithm to calculate the area of the triangle. I then used the existing triangle as a template to cut another triangle. I had the children direct me in how to put the two triangles together to form a rectangle. With the children, I calculated the area of the new rectangle. We discovered that the rectangle's area was twice the area of the triangle, or that the triangle's area was one-half of the area of the rectangle.

I'm taking entirely too long to express the point that children learn better by doing something themselves than by watching something be done. I handed pre-cut rectangles to the children and asked them to take out their scissors and to cut the rectangles corner-to corner in order to create two equal triangles. The children looked at my dumbfoundedly. "We don't have scissors," one of them finally volunteered. We got through the lesson by folding and tearing the rectangles into triangles, but it would have been both simpler and more effective had the children been able to use scissors to cut the shapes.

At lunch, I asked another teacher why Mrs. Ernst's class didn't have scissors. The teacher and all the others within earshot laughed. One of them explained, "About three  years ago a kindergarten boy cut a girl's hair with scissors. The girl's mother went to the district superintendent and complained. After the next principal's meeting, all of the student scissors in the district were confiscated." No students in the kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade district are allowed to use scissors now because one kindergartner cut a lock of another kindergartner's hair.  

Are scissors potentially dangerous? Yes. Could they potentially be used as weapons? Absolutely. Could they be used by students to cut hair? Obviously. Is that sufficient reason to ban all student use of scissors? I wouldn't think so, but my opinion didn't matter. One teacher mentioned that inevitably a student would eventually poke himself or another student with a pencil or pen and cause an injury. It hadn't happened, or hadn't been reported, since the present superintendent had been in power. The teachers were afraid that the superintendent would ban writing implements when that happened.

Other policies the superintendent had instituted were a ban on all peanut products including peanut butter even in lunches from home because one student in the school had a peanut allergy. (This is perfectly ludicrous but he's not the first principal to have instituted such a policy regarding peanuts.) Tetherball was not allowed because the superintendent feared that a suicidal child might ask to use the bathroom, then go to the playground and  hang himself on a tetherball rope. The teachers said site principals offered to take responsibility for getting the tetherballs on and off the poles so that they would be out only when children were supervised on the playground, but the superintendent insisted that someone would eventually forget, and that might be the one time a child was suicidal and decided to end it all. The teachers told me that one principal then commented to the superintendent that if a child were sufficiently desperate to end his or her life, the child could potentially drown himself or herself in a toilet.  They told me that the superintendent worried about that possibility for a long time and considered banning the use of all restrooms except for the one student toilet in the nurse's office. The superintendent doesn't allow teachers to use paper clips at all in their classrooms because children could turn them into weapons even though it's never happened in the district, or the children might steal the paper clips, take them home, and stick them into electrical sockets. I'm sure there are many other asinine restrictions in this district based solely on the superintendent's unreasonable obsession on safety.

The superintendent's safety obsession, I have learned from a relative who teaches in the district, is in full force today -- the day of the solar eclipse.  It would have been better had he taken the eclipse into consideration when the year's school calendar was developed and had the day declared to be a school holiday. It would have been inconvenient for working parents, but the students could at least have had the opportunity to observe the eclipse. Instead, the superintendent has decreed that on all campuses in the district, a rainy-day schedule will be in effect so that no one is to observe the eclipse. There hasn't been one in North America in thirty-three years, there won't be another one here for eight years, and the students and teachers of the district are going to miss out on all of the excitement and the learning opportunities associated with the phenomenon because he's too cheap to order protective glasses for the children. This blows my mind.

When they learned of the policy, many teachers went out of their way to inform parents of the district policy so that the parents could keep their children at home today if they felt strongly about wanting their children to observe the eclipse. The superintendent will pay a financial price for his absurdity. A large chunk of school funding is based on student attendance. Teachers are guessing that as many as one-third of students in the district will be absent today. The superintendent's lack of common sense will hit him where it hurts most.

I am utterly flabbergasted by the stupidity of this person who has been elevated to a position of authority over every student and teacher in a school district with an enrollment of nearly 20,000 students. 


  1. So sad. The principal sounds like a dipshit.

  2. Until either someone sues him over his ludicrous policies or his school board fires him, he's not likely to see the light. My aunt said almost half of the enrolled student were absent on Monday. Serves him right.