Common Core Fears: Short Atlantic Reflections

From the article Suburbia and Its Common Core Conspiracy Theories:

Many parents view the Common Core and the accompanying tests as a threat to their ability to keep their kids safe in a hostile world. Suburban parents, who are known for being particularly involved in their kids’ education and traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policymaking, are frustrated by not being able to convince their local school boards to alter the standards or testing requirements. They worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them. They worry that, ultimately, their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s.

A few thoughts on this key paragraph.

Traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policy making.

Very true. A cynical part of me wants to say welcome to the world of inner-city urban education, where policy making is frequently dictated by state legislators. We can debate whether this is good or bad. And it may be a bit of a chicken or the egg issue. If lower performing , inner city districts had parents who were more involved (and to be clear, there’s a whole HUGE list of why they’re not involved) would said districts be lower performing? But that particular privilege of influence is weakening as education policy makers pivot towards various global and large scale boogymen (China! Lack of jobs! Generation of slackers! Economic stagnation, etc). Big problems require big (and centralized) solutions apparently.

They worry about not being able to help kids with homework.

Confession: I can’t help my 3rd and 4th grade daughters with their math homework. I keep “doing it wrong”. As an educator, I get the shift. The newer ways of doing math are there to help kids develop a better number sense. And, for certain, number sense is important. I really want my kids to have good number sense. It will help them immensely in the complicated world they’re about to inherit.

But I can’t do it. Not without googling the techniques, spending a good amount of time figuring out a new way to get the same answer, and then probably messing it up when trying to explain things to my perplexed daughters. It’s just a whole lot simpler to show them how I would do it (the old way). And I don’t feel stupid. I suspect that’s why a lot of parents are torqued. No one wants to feel stupid with 3rd grade math.

They worry their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s.

This, I think, is the root fear (I can certainly identify with it). In America, the past 3 decades has not been great for the middle class (on the plus side, it’s been great for the rest of the world!). We’ve seen a more opportunities to fall out of the middle class rather than fall into  the middle class. There are a CONSIDERABLE amount of reasons for this (and these reasons take on their own colors given your political persuasion), but the fear is very real to parents who want the best for their children.

Unfortunately, the Common Core has become a symbol of that fear.

Becoming Batman, Teaching, and Adoptive Kids

Here’s a question you don’t typically consider. Could the expectation of sight in a blind person allow them to actually see?

Could expectation be that powerful?

Turns out the answer to that question is that yes, expectations can allow the blind to see. I’m not going to get into the details of this incredible story. Rather, just go listen to this awesome new podcast by NPR. It’s called Invisibilia.

Invisibilia feels like a podcast handpicked for me. It’s a podcast that examines all the “invisible” things that influence human behavior. It hits all the really cool things I love to study: ideas, beliefs, assumptions, thought processes, and why we do what we do. And it does it with cool narrative arcs and a good mix of humor…sometime rather edgy humor given its NPR roots (the episode of fear had a very quick aside to a well known Saturday Night Live skit featuring Justin Timberlake and a box).

This particular episode raised questions about teaching and parenting.

On Expectations & Teaching

One insight (no pun intended) from listening to Daniel Kish was that it’s really, really important to get expectations correct. If you set the bar too low, students won’t learn to jump very high. In the classroom it’s particularly easy to get this formula wrong because you’re juggling a bunch of kids with a wide degree of capabilities at the start of school. All of which makes me wonder:

  • Can an academic performance expectation be more common than different?
  • How do you get that formula correct? Sure, the state sets expectations (standards), so this is somewhat dictated. But there’s still a good bit latitude.
  • And what about the kids who keep tripping over the bar? Seeing your students fail to meet your expectation over and over again is quite exhausting and, frankly, depressing.

On Expectations & Adoptive Parenting

Adoptive parents are told by a wide array of professionals and adoption books to constantly lower their expectations.

Part of this makes good sense. With biological children, most parents project a family experience similar to their own. If you’re upper middle class, successful, and generally well educated (not to mention had a childhood that was solid and loving from the beginning), you naturally think your children will be like you. And for the most part, that’s how it works out.

But adoptive children – especially older adoptive children – come with their own particular bags of issues (after all, there’s a reason they had to be adopted in the first place). Much of the cognitive and emotional capacity of parents and their adoptive children will be spent dealing with those issues…not necessarily the every day milestones healthy children face like learning times-tables, eating well, and understanding the mechanics of speech between peers and adults. Speaking from experience, we adjust. Often.

Adjusting is not necessarily the same as lowering. Frequently we lower and then raise.

Still, this episode of Invisibilia made me wonder if we’re calibrating correctly?

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Books

The first substantial book I read was the Value Tales. It was the Value of Patience (the Wright Brothers). I read the book to my sister Anna. I’m quite certain I botched most of the words. But I got from cover to cover.

The first chapter book I read was The Boxcar Children (1st or 2nd grade). After, I contemplated running way. I built a fort in the backyard instead.

The first book I cried through was Where the Red Fern Grows. I never picked up Old Yeller.

The first grown up book I read was from Gilbert Morris’s “House of Winslow” series (“Honorable Impostor”). They were Baptist adventure books. They always had romance, adventure, and a solid conversion near the end of the novel.

The first adult book I read was Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses. Terribly written. And definitely not Baptist.

The first major science fiction book I read was Piers Anthony’s Macroscope. It triggered a complete and total love of the genre. To this day I will read anything published by Charlie Stross, Peter Hamilton, Neal Stephenson, Stephen Baxter, David Brin, Alistair Reynolds (this itself is a small sample).

I discovered fantasy late in the game (the exception being the childhood standards of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Prydain). I thought the genre somewhat cheesy. Then, a year out of college, I read Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. After, an entirely new set of authors like Kate Elliot, Guy Gavriel Kay, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss joined my bookshelf.

I completely fell in love with anything written by Robin Hobb. Her ability to create human characters that experience great sacrifice is incredible. I’ve autographed copies of the Assassins Trilogy sitting on the bookshelf as well (somewhat worn because I lend the books out often).

There’s non-fiction too. Lots of history books (Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1492, The Warmth of other Suns), science books (The Ancestor’s Tale, The Elegant Universe, A Short History of Nearly Everything), and religious books (The Divine Conspiracy, Divided by Faith, Celebration of Discipline, Doubt).

I’ve always had a book on hand. I love reading.

The Disappearance of the Physical

After Ren and I bought our house, I took a great deal of pride and excitement in creating a study full of bookshelves. We filled shelf after shelf – even after sending a good number of cases to Half Priced Books. We had our own library. It was comforting, warm, and reassuring. It wasn’t that I ever intended to read all the books again, although a few copies would get pulled regularly for a second (or third) round of reading. Perhaps my kids would read the books when they grew older. Or I could be “that friend” who constantly passed on a new novel to home visitors. Having my own library was my own nerdy version of driving a Mercedes. Yeah, I was grown up enough to own and display lots of books.

But then I got an iPad.

And I picked up a used Kindle off Craigslist for $15.

We didn’t stop buying books. If anything, the simplicity of having a novel show up in one click increased our purchases (and cut down on my visits to the library). They just came in .mobi format (or the occasional ePub).

Our library went virtual.

The change wasn’t even gradual. Around the same time I got an iPad, I also brought home new children and started new jobs. My dedicated reading time took a dip. With less time, making trips to the library became more of a hassle. Downloading books with a click was easy and fast. Convenience replaced the satisfaction the physical.

This past Christmas break I slimmed down the library and gave most of our books away. The walls have art on them instead of bookshelves. The most prominent item is the glowing, alien ASUS router that connects me to Amazon and the Cincinnati Public Library. A solitary bookshelf contains the keepers. Cooking books (you always need pictures). Religious books. A large collection of Science Fiction. And my precious anthology of Calvin and Hobbs.

In religion class I remember learning about Jews and Christians and Muslims being a “people of the book”. This means different things for the different faiths, but shares the concept that a book, the book, has power. Books are a symbol to many things we hold holy.

What does it mean to become people of the screen? Does it somehow affect our identity? Or are narratives and words and ideas really platform agnostic? It really doesn’t matter if it’s paper or glass (or papyrus or clay tablet).

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it bears some reflecting that this is one of the moments where technology is, yet again, changing how we interact with our world.