Archives for November 2003

Thinking for Columbine

The Bowling for Columbine Teachers’ Guide is chock full of ways to use Michael Moore’s movie to “help students develop critical thinking skills, historical analysis, and open their minds on many universal issues.” Or so it says. Brenda of Isomorphisms spotlights a few howlers:

7. Michael Moore asks the Lockheed manager if kids think, “Dad goes off to the factory every day and builds missiles. These are weapons of mass destruction. What’s the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?” The Lockheed manager suggests that there is not a connection. In a persuasive essay, support a thesis in which you argue whether Moore’s statement of a connection makes sense.

Here’s a three-word essay: No, it doesn’t.

Just for starters, Columbine’s Lockheed plant doesn’t make weapons; it makes rockets that boost satellites into orbit.

10. An underlying theme in the film is the issue of white racism and how this racism has spawned fear. Using specific examples from the film as well as other research, agree or disagree with the concept that racism in our country leads to fear.

Doesn’t fear lead to racism? And, since almost all the Columbine victims were white, why is racism relevant? For that matter, why is fear relevant? The murderers didn’t act in self-defense.

New math that isn’t new

Kimberly at Number 2 Pencil scoffs at a breathless story about a seventh grader “discovering” a new way to solve math problems using negative numbers. It ain’t new to people who know anything about math, which apparently excludes the girl’s teacher and the reporter.

Brenda of Isomorphisms mocks a similar story about a 16-year-old girl who’s allegedly revolutionized math with her new “Lizzie Method” for solving quadratic equations. The story says the girl “has the math world spinning.” Or yawning.

Responding to an e-mail inquiry, the (University of Michigan math) professor writes, “This method was the standard method taught when I was in school, and I suspect that in many parts of the USA it is still the standard method.”

The Lizzie Method works well for equations with small numbers, which are common in basic high school math. Brenda, who teaches math, is frustrated:

Imagine if a thirteen year old science student tries to dissolve salt in oil, and fails. Or if a ninth grader writes a short story that makes use of flashbacks, rather than exposing the events chronologically. Neither of these would make it into any newspaper. Neither would be portrayed as earth-shattering events. Neither’s teacher would be lauded for not giving their pupil a failing grade. People are familiar enough with science and literature that they tell the difference between inquisitive, creative kids, and world-changing inventions. Yet innumeracy is so deeply ingrained that a teenager’s slight departure from the a small set of methods for doing mathematics is beyond the grasp of her school’s teachers and her city’s journalists.

I can’t speak for teachers, but most journalists are profoundly innumerate. At the Mercury News, our best number-crunching reporter would circulate an occasional reminder for colleagues about the meaning of 100 percent or the dangers of looking at an increase without mentioning the base number; sometimes he’d teach a little lesson on fractions. And people were grateful for the help. If you look at the story on Lizzie, it has loads of color. But it’s clearly written by someone who thinks solving quadratic equations is a job for Albert Einstein.

Ta ta, plaster saints

Good heavens! Julie Burchill, on her way to a job at the Times (of London) says goodbye — and good riddance to her Guardian readers, “all-round, top-drawer, plaster saints.” Burchill devotes her farewell to an analysis of anti-Semitism as the personal pretending to be political.

I can’t help noticing that, over the years, a disproportionate number of attractive, kind, clever people are drawn to Jews; those who express hostility to them, however, from Hitler to Hamza, are often as not repulsive freaks.

Think of famous anti-Zionist windbags – Redgrave, Highsmith, Galloway – and what dreary, dysfunctional, po-faced vanity confronts us. When we consider famous Jew-lovers, on the other hand – Marilyn, Ava, Liz, Felicity Kendal, me – what a sumptuous banquet of radiant humanity we look upon! How fitting that it was Richard Ingrams – Victor Meldrew without the animal magnetism – who this summer proclaimed in the Observer that he refuses to read letters from Jews about the Middle East, and that Jewish journalists should declare their racial origins when writing on this subject. Replying in another newspaper, Johann Hari suggested sarcastically that their bylines might be marked with a yellow star, and asked why Ingrams didn’t want to know whether those writing on international conflicts were Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Hindu. The answer is obvious to me: poor Ingrams is a miserable, bitter, hypocritical cuckold, whose much younger girlfriend has written at length in the public arena of the boredom, misery and alcoholism to which living with him has led her, and whose trademark has long been a loathing for anyone who appears to get a kick out of life: the young, the prole, independent women. The Jews are in good company.

Columnists don’t write like this in America. It just isn’t done. Except on blogs, of course.

Cheat sheets

Is it real or is it from a paper mill? helps professors — and now high school teachers — spot plagiarism. The Washington Post reports:

The software compares a student’s essay to all the text on the publicly available Internet, a vast library of books and academic journals and the 10 million essays already turned in to the service. Matching text shows up underlined, and the teacher can link to the writing it mirrors.

“If a student is caught cheating, there is this unambiguous evidence,” said John Barrie, the founder of Oakland, Calif.-based “Instead of asking a student how they came to write a paper so patently beyond their intellectual ability, I could ask, ‘Can you explain why 87 percent of this paper is underlined by this program?’ ”

Students told the Post that copying words is wrong but rewriting someone else’s ideas is OK. And the software won’t spot paraphrasing.

At least, students seem to be honest about cheating: 74 percent admitted they’d cheated in some way in 2002 in one survey, up from 61 percent 10 years earlier.

“There’s this mysterious perception about the Internet. . . . No one has created it — it’s just out there for you to take,” said Diane Waryold, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.

Honor codes run into the new morality.

. . . teachers across the country are up against some students who question the concept of honor itself, who view cheating as a victimless offense (much the same way they see downloading music), who say it doesn’t feel like cheating if the assignment is stupid, who justify wrongdoing by citing their stress and who are scared about nothing other than getting caught.

In 30 percent of papers submitted to, “more than one-quarter of the text was copied verbatim.”

Via Cranky Professor. Here’s Mental Multivitamin’s take on the issue.

Cheating is prevalent among the best high school students, says this New York Times story. Driven to get into elite colleges, more students are cutting ethical corners. The story quotes Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor, whose survey found 75 percent of high school students had “cheated at least once on a test, up from 50 percent in 1993 and 25 percent in 1963.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that students who come from privileged backgrounds develop a certain entitlement mentality,” Mr. McCabe said. “Also they are under much greater pressure from their parents on the college admissions issue.”

What’s changed is parenting, says another researcher. When a student is caught cheating, parents threaten to sue the school.

Public schools learn to compete

In Wisconsin, school districts are offering home study programs using online curricula. It’s a money-maker.

WIVA, a partnership between the small, rural Northern Ozaukee School District and K12, a for-profit education company headed by former national education czar Bill Bennett, opened for business this fall. It is one of at least six Wisconsin cyber schools that offer online learning for students whose needs can’t be met in traditional classrooms.

Of course, the teachers’ union thinks that cyber-students don’t get enough time with a certified teacher, as opposed to a parent.


If students don’t learn manners in school, they may not learn it at all.

“The dramatic shift is parents’ expectations for their kids,” said Ed Harris, principal at Cahokia High. “It used to be that the parent and the school were in cahoots to make sure the student was doing the right thing. Now, the parent often sides with the kid.

Increasingly, students show no respect for authority figures or for classmates.

F—ing strange

To desensitize students to frequent f— word use in Catcher in the Rye, a Virginia teacher assigned unusual homework.

“My teacher decided that it would be best to have the students go home and say in private the phrase ‘F-U,’ 10,000 times in different dialogues and different ways and tones and stuff, so that we’d become desensitized to it and wouldn’t have to worry about it,” said Chantilly High School student Jeff Daybell.

. . . The school system issued a statement that read: “The teacher didn’t want the students to be alarmed by what they read. There may have been better ways to handle this.”

Cam Edwards has a suggestion:

How about making the teacher wear a sign for the rest of the school year that says “I’m an f***ing idiot.”

I think the teacher was joking. He had to be joking. Right? And the official who said students were “alarmed” by reading a profanity. That must have been a joke too. Surely they were getting giggly over it and the teacher wanted them to shut the f— up.

All-American turkey

In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s Benjamin Franklin on the all-American virtues of the turkey.

Boys and girls are different

Boys and girls use playgrounds differently, researchers say. Girls use the swings and like to climb to the top of play structures and yell down at friends. Boys like to run around. This doesn’t seem to be a problem to me but the researchers are troubled.

The study, Children’s Use of Public Space: The Gendered World of the Playground, makes a link between boys’ dominance in the playground and their control over most of the play space, and equality gaps between men and women later in life.

. . . The study concludes that gender stereotypes rule in this realm: Boys tend to play in bigger groups and with more physicality, using the entire playground space broadly and caring less for the accoutrements of the playground; girls play in twos and threes, gathering atop the climbing structures, monopolizing the swings and preferring more complex play equipment.

The researcher wants to redesign playgrounds with more girl-attracting structures so girls will use playgrounds more and occupy the same square footage as boys. Why not require boys to swing and climb, while requiring girls to play tag?

The bike is in the garage

Sales of children’s bikes are way up, reports the Washington Post. Bike riding is way down.

When kids do ride their bikes, it is often a pale version of that childhood tradition. They ride endlessly around a single block or cul-de-sac, up and down the same street or, in busier neighborhoods, up and down the driveway. It is a far cry from days gone by when generations of children arrived home from school, jumped on their 10-speeds or banana bikes and rode — no helmets, no chaperones, no deadline except dusk or dinner.

. . . In a world that feels ever more dangerous, parents drive children everywhere to make sure they’re safe. And in two-career families, less free time for parents means less free time for children as well.

“There’s soccer or swimming or music lessons,” said (Bill) Wilkinson, whose organization lobbies parents to get their children to walk and ride more bikes to combat obesity. “Most kids are never out of direct supervision of an adult.”