Let’s Stop Talking About Failure

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The American college admissions process has became a zero-sum, Hobbesian, juggernaut. Advanced Placement classes proliferate to serve the insatiable gods of Achievement and Rigor, and panic attacks, sleep deprivation, and depression are as common in high schools as iced lattes.

Then suddenly a few years ago, adults in and around education started talking about teaching kids “how to fail” and urging students to “embrace failure” as though the grade-obsessed, high-stakes lunacy that is secondary school culture in America is somehow the kids’ fault. Gosh, they’re just such perfectionists; I wonder why they can’t seem to relax?

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Becoming Better Together: Re-Thinking The Faculty In-Service

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The academic summer vacation is a long, tranquil mix of relaxation and productivity. Murder mysteries vie for attention with monographs, time with family alternates with professional development, and the active badgers the contemplative to get up and out, exploring and doing. Active, we’re nagged by a feeling of intellectual irresponsibility, while contemplative hours feel physically slothful. For three months we strike an easy balance, made all the more sweet for being finite. And each August announces the end of the idyll with an ivory-colored envelope containing the beginning-of-year faculty meeting agenda.

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Six Things To Do Over Winter Break Besides Schoolwork

A colleague recently mused about how much homework to assign his students over the winter holiday break. The only sensible reply, which I blurted loudly, was “GOOD GOD, MAN: NONE!”

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I’ll do a bit of exam grading and planning over the break, but that’s my job; it’s why I get the big bucks and the red pens. I certainly hope that my students have a genuinely refreshing break from their schoolwork, and I think that time should be off-limits to school assignments. I hope students spend quality time with their families, get enough sleep, goof around, and relax. Of course there’s time for some useful and engaging stuff, too. One could easily sleep and loaf away two weeks in a glorious festival of sloth, and I wouldn’t judge anyone for napping lazily down that path. But abject sloth gets old surprisingly fast. Continue reading “Six Things To Do Over Winter Break Besides Schoolwork”

Why I Hate Teaching AP History

Anyone considering the role of Advanced Placement (AP) history in a school’s curriculum ought to begin with the following exercise:

  1. Describe in a few sentences what you think a good history course should be and do. What type of reading should students be assigned, and what should the classroom look like and how should it function?
  2. Describe what you mean by “critical thinking.” What should this look like in a history classroom?
  3. Describe what you mean by “intellectual rigor.”

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Detecting Baloney about “Schools of the Future”

As part of a brief project before our study of the Scientific Revolution, I recently had my sophomore high school students read Carl Sagan’s “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World. The aim of this mini-unit was to provide students with some tools with which to sharpen their critical thinking skills, and to this end Sagan provides an overview of how to evaluate the credibility of scientific research specifically, and arguments in general. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read it; it is a lively, at times personal, and very effective guide to healthy skepticism. Sagan concludes the chapter with definitions and examples of seventeen major logical and rhetorical fallacies.

Demon-Haunted_WorldAfter a discussion of Sagan’s piece and a bit of practice recognizing and creating examples of fallacies, I wanted the students to apply their critical tools to an actual argument. A bit on the fly, because I knew it was riddled with easily-recognizable fallacies and other weaknesses, and because I thought their reactions to it might be interesting, I gave each student a copy of pages five through nine of A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future, by the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) Commission on Accreditation.  The students were to read the brief section for homework and come to class armed with four substantive critiques of the argument’s structure and credibility. I made it clear that whether they agreed or disagreed with the general point of the essay was irrelevant to this assignment, which was concerned only with analyzing the argument’s effectiveness. Continue reading “Detecting Baloney about “Schools of the Future””

Fending off the Barbarians of Educational Technology

As I took my seat in a high-school auditorium recently, I noted with surprise and a bit of subversive pleasure that our speaker, a prominent author and professor of creative writing, had requested only a podium and an ancient, Little House on the Prairie-looking chalkboard as his stage setup. For the next forty minutes, this awkwardly charming middle-aged man held his audience’s rapt attention as he spoke about truth, language, and the writing process. In my classes later that day and throughout the days following, students enthused, mostly unprompted, about how much they enjoyed the author’s talk, how his way of thinking resonated with them, how intriguing they found his notion of the relationship between the truth and the stories we tell, and how much they liked his book. It was a lovely period of collective intellectual excitement.

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