Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Mango Elephants in the Sun

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mango Elephants in the Sun” by Susana Herrera, published in 1999. This ebook is the personal account of the author’s two-year experience in the Peace Corps, assigned to the village of Guidiguis, in the northern tip of Cameroon in the early 1990′s. The first chapter was dense with minutiae, but the content became informative and entertaining as the book progressed.

The government of Cameroon was a monarchy, and the local regions had mayors, all of whom drove black Mercedes. The Muslim king had a hundred children. The country also had a president. There was growing anti-government unrest in the southwestern part of the country, that spread to the author’s region toward the end of her stay. The president ordered pay cuts for common working people, while soldiers got raises. The people were “…already angry, complaining that he has rigged the elections.” The different languages and tribes of the people made it difficult for them to put aside their differences to unite to fight against the injustices.

The living conditions were primitive, with no indoor plumbing. Water had to be transferred in buckets a mile distant. Clothes were washed by hand. Other hardships included but were far from limited to: the 125-degree Fahrenheit heat, the risk of contracting life-threatening illnesses such as amoebic dysentery and malaria, termites’ destruction of wooden furniture, elephants’ destruction of millet fields and corn fields in the village, the need for a mosquito net around the bed, and crickets and rats in the residence. But Herrera’s quarters had electricity, and included a refrigerator.

The author taught English to a class of 107 boys and 4 girls of varying ages. She was fluent in French– their common language, but learned a bit of their languages, Fulfulde and Tapouri, too. The village consisted of two tribes, the Foulbe and the Tapouri, which were rivals in hard times, such as drought. The kids had uniforms, but no books. It was common practice for the girls to be subjected to an arranged marriage or a life of farm work, instead of an education. Discipline in school was maintained through beatings, so the students would “respect” the teacher. Herrera meted out punishment by having students kneel on the ground or fetch water instead.

Herrera described her adventures. She developed personal relationships with a few of her students. She taught one girl, Lydie, to ride a bicycle, and was roundly criticized for it. Lydie’s father was angry because Lydie would never own a bike, so the author was giving her false hope, and the result was also wasted effort and time.

Lydie explained her busy life to the author thusly: “My little brothers help me with the water. Then I make beignets for breakfast and bathe the children. After I wash dishes, I’ll start the laundry or, if I have time, begin the midday meal. Then I’ll sweep the compound before going to school.” The boys had no chores. At dawn, they walked to school, and ate the peanuts they reaped along the way. Lydie could look forward to even more work as a grownup: “…cooking, cleaning, washing, planting, harvesting, child care, shopping and water pumping.” In Cameroonian culture, fatness of a wife was a sign of a husband’s love– his ability to provide for her, by selling grain, ironically.

Read the book to find out more about how the author coped with the everyday difficulties, and little triumphs, in a culture and land that was so different from her native California.

Confessions of a Bad Teacher

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Confessions of a Bad Teacher” by John Owens, published in 2013. This ebook is the personal account of a first-year teacher in a New York City “small school” during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

After a successful career in publishing, Owens was trying his hand at teaching. Poor naive soul that he was, he didn’t realize what he was getting into. He encountered “school reform gone terribly wrong.” For, in this day and age, teachers are the scapegoat for all of America’s education problems, especially in low-income districts, like the one where he got a job. From 5am to 10pm daily, the author was working. He was assigned middle school and high school English classes– a total of 125 students, going between two classrooms every day.

The principal of his school made impossible demands on the teachers by putting them in countless “Catch-22″ situations. One involved disciplining the students. She left this to the teachers, but when they needed a higher authority to enforce the rules on punishment for serious offenses, the teachers were strongly discouraged from “wasting” administrators’ time.

The unreasonable principal herself punished teachers severely with an “Unsatisfactory” rating if he or she had poor “classroom management.” Getting the students to sit quietly was well-nigh impossible most of the time, for so many reasons. For one, Owens estimated that of the 28 kids in his eighth grade class, about 8 of them had “…learning or behavior or emotional problems.” The parents of some of them did not want them to be labeled in a way that would stigmatize them but allow them to get help. The frequently absent special-education teacher popped into the classroom when she was not doing other tasks deemed of higher priority by the school principal, anyway.

The author was buried in an avalanche of bureaucratic work in addition to his teaching duties. He had to create, duplicate or obey: “…handouts, PowerPoints, and relentless, notebook-filling rules, rubrics, standards, demands and musts…” not to mention an overwhelming amount of required computer-data-entry of numerical scores in various topic-areas, grades, documentation, etc. Furthermore, the principal demanded that the teachers give exams to the students at least every other week. Owens was ordered by the assistant principal to give students a test in a style like the Regents (New York State standardized tests given once or twice a year, in specific subjects) weekly.

To sum it up, like so many other teachers in the United States, Owens found himself playing the “…role of an accomplice in a crazy and corrupt system bent on achieving statistical results, rather than helping students.”  Read the book to learn what happened. Hint: It wasn’t pretty.

Bonus Post

Monday, April 20th, 2015

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” by Yong Zhao, published in 2014. This repetitive, short ebook consists of an extended essay, mostly critiquing China’s education system. This blogger critiques the ebook below.

But first, a cute quatrain by the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Tung-P’o, translated by Arthur Waley:

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

It appears to this blogger that this ebook was rushed to press. Sure, the writing is grammatically correct; there are neither typos nor misspellings. But this ebook has poor structure– the author’s thoughts are disorganized and there are glaring omissions of data that might significantly affect his arguments. The subjects of the chapters appear in an unexpected order. The author has a chapter on Mao Tse Tung, and another one later in the book, arbitrarily.

In a few topic areas, the author cherry-picks the evidence for, and provides only one example for, making his points in arguing his thesis: The United States is heading in the wrong direction in copying China’s education system. I happen to agree. However, there is hardly any mention of the United States at all in the book’s second half.

The portion discussing Coca-Cola and the fact that the author uses various books (secondary sources) as references, raises the issue of credibility of the book. The further from the original source of his references– the less credible it is likely to be, like a game of “telephone.” Supporting evidence for his arguments might be perfectly valid, but are harder to verify than original sources.

The information about Coca-Cola seems irrelevant–unrelated to education, and smacks somewhat of propaganda. According to this ebook, the company was a leader in pushing to lift the ban on the sale of American products (especially its own) in China in 1978, two years after the death of Mao Tse Tung. It started its campaign to do so in 1972, but the book fails to mention there were external forces (like a political one), that might have helped its efforts– President Nixon’s renewal of diplomatic relations with China that year.

The author discusses Mao’s policies extensively in this ebook’s latter half, but fails to mention a major cultural force that affects education– China’s one-child policy. This is a policy which puts extremely draconian restrictions on families to have only one child (preferably a boy) that the government has been imposing for the last few decades in its attempts to stem the country’s population growth. Neglecting to mention this, is a major omission, in that population growth affects school overcrowding and acceptance of students to schools.

Read the book to get the details on what the author does discuss:

  • China’s misleading standardized test scores;
  • the ways the Chinese government’s education policy is detrimental to society;
  • almost halfway through this ebook– Mao’s late 1950′s “Great Leap Forward” campaign to modernize China through scientific and technological innovations; the description reminds this blogger of the Benito-Mussolini-brand of Fascism in 1930′s Italy, a mentality based on nothing but propaganda and ego (minus the imperialism, in China’s case); needless to say, there’s nothing new under the sun;
  • what happens when people are pressured to raise standardized-test scores and rankings either by the imposition of punishment or rewards
  • how an advocate for the worldwide authority, “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) that administers a worldwide standardized test, has come to incorrect conclusions about China’s high performance in connection therewith
  • how China’s parents are going to extreme lengths to provide their children with what they perceive to be the best education the children can possibly get because otherwise, the children will be considered failures in life, and
  • how, through the centuries, China has had its vacillations between focusing on authoritarian rule, conformity, hierarchy, rankings, standardized testing and other oppressive social, cultural and educational policies; and relaxation of those policies.

The author apparently believes education is meant to help prepare one for a profession, as he says, “As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens– job creators instead of employment minded job seekers.”

As Bad As They Say?

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx” by Janet Grossbach Mayer, published in 2011. This is the career memoir of a New York City teacher.

Grossbach started teaching in January 1960 to a class of fifty(!) middle schoolers, with no books. All by herself. The principal visited her the first week. Thereafter, neither he nor any other administrators visited again. In the almost sixty intervening years since then, not much has changed in terms of education quality (or lack thereof) for New York City public school students. As an aside, her older brother attended Queens College in New York City in the 1950′s, when there was free tuition.

“Whomever you blame, do not blame Bronx students, because, despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.”

In the mid-1980′s, the author worked at a horrible school in the Bronx. She lists only several of the countless flaws in the building’s infrastructure and culture; among them, the elevator was often out of order; the school nurse wasn’t licensed, and had to care for 1,600-1,800 kids and staff; the author stomped when she entered her classrooms (several different ones in the course of each day) in order to scare away the roaches, rats and mice; her classrooms was on the coal-heated side of the building, so it was always freezing and the other side was boiling; there were no student lockers in the entire school– just cubbies with no locks, so they went unused…

Sadly, politicians promote misguided education policies, like voting against financially aiding a majority of students in poverty-stricken school districts because it would be potential political suicide to take from the rich and give to the poor. The last chapter is a justified complaint-fest on the education policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg  (doing damage from 2002 to 2013), with a little of former president George W. Bush’s scandalous “No Child Left Behind” bill thrown in. To sum up Bloomberg’s reign: “Having business leaders run the public schools can be compared to having surgeons working in operating rooms without having gone to medical school.” The author cited a study that said by their fourth year of teaching, 85% of Teach For America (neophyte teachers-in-training who completed a rushed summer course and were then allowed to teach) had left New York City.

After she retired, Mayer mentored students in Bloomberg’s “small schools.” In her first year, she found five nonfunctioning small high schools, whose personnel were all inexperienced. There were various situations of flagrant violations of the law, like special education classes whose teachers were unlicensed. The public address system was broken the whole school year. If there had been an emergency, people could have died. There were “…expensive new math books torn up and thrown all over the floor by students in classes with new teachers…” who could not control their classrooms. “The new principal, with no science background, had written a new science curriculum…” ordering the teaching of physics in ninth rather than twelfth grade to special education students. “The math teacher wasn’t licensed in special education, never mind physics.” There was no librarian to open the cartons of brand new books for the entire school year. Needless to say, there were numerous “…distraught teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

The above abominations were not isolated incidents. Third-world countries were getting smarter assistance with governance to improve education conditions than the New York City schools. Read the book to learn how the author coped.

The Strange Case of the Mad Professor

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor” by Peter Kobel, published in 2013. This ebook recounts the sordid story of a petty, vengeful university professor who was passionate about his field of study, lemurs.

Professor John Buettner-Janusch (aka “B-J”), of German and Austrian descent, was born in 1924. He grew up in the United States, but went to jail for evading the draft during WWII. “His desire for attention was enormous, and he never seemed to care much whether that notice was admiration, disdain, or loathing.”

B-J eventually rose through the ranks of higher education while collecting a menagerie of lemurs that were subjected to primate research. People either loved him or hated him. He was like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It became apparent that he was also a sociopath.

Starting in the late 1970′s, he was charged with serious crimes. “…But much of B-J’s pretrial testimony formed a farrago of lies and half-truths, of the incredible or incomprehensible.”

Read the book to learn what became of this colorful character.

Outwitting History

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” by Aaron Lansky, published in 2005. The author of this ebook, passionate about the Yiddish language and the culture and history behind it, made a career of preserving books in Yiddish by physically transporting them to an eventual library he and a few others started.

Lansky attended a Northeastern free-spirited college, Hampshire, where he was afforded the opportunity to become fluent in Yiddish. Teaching of the language between generations has been uneven because different factions of Jews have different opinions of it so that its popularity has risen and fallen through the centuries. Lansky felt a sense of immediacy about saving Yiddish literature because he was told that scholars “…estimated that there were seventy thousand Yiddish volumes extant and recoverable in North America” and he was finding out that books were being destroyed for diverse reasons in various ways.

Funding and fundraising have always been a challenge for the author through the decades. To pick up hundreds of Yiddish volumes at once, say, from the home of an intellectual Jew who had passed away, he needed to pay for: renting a truck, gas, insurance, travel expenses, storage, etc. Lecturing has also been a source of money for his endeavors.

Read the book to learn how the National Yiddish Book Center was formed, how he recruited other people to help him with collecting books, the social and cultural organizations to which he traveled to collect them, the food he was pressured to eat while meeting a lot of volunteers of the older generation who shared his love of, and desire to keep Yiddish alive, and how his organization is harnessing modern technology to attain its aims.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

The short ebook “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future” by Michael J. Fox, published in 2010 is an inspiring commencement speech.  The author answers the question, “What constitutes an education?”

As a teenager, Fox himself sacrificed his formal education for his career. It was an alternate route that was not necessarily inferior to his staying in school. He had found his passion early in life and circumstances allowed him to pursue it. He does not necessarily recommend the method he fell into, but tells the reader to be on the lookout for and respect mentors, opportunities and lessons in life. Read the book to learn the details of the education Fox did receive.