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Mar. 11 2010 — 2:08 pm | 72 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Oscar winner to kids: ‘It’s not a waste of time’

Coloured pencils

Image by alancleaver_2000 via Flickr

I know, the Academy Awards are so yesterday, but I was really struck by Michael Giacchino’s acceptance speech. He won for his original score for “Up,” and he graciously eschewed the usual shout-outs to agents and higher powers. Instead, he went back to the beginning and thanked his teachers. A snippet:

I had teachers, I had colleagues, I had people that I worked with all through my life who always told me what you’re doing is not a waste of time… I know there are kids out there that don’t have that support system so if you’re out there and you’re listening, listen to me: If you want to be creative, get out there and do it. It’s not a waste of time. Do it. OK?

via Oscar.com – Nominations – Nominees.

I’m increasingly worried that kids today won’t have that encouragement from teachers. The common core standards released yesterday by the National Governors Association focus on English, science, and math. In a time when federal money is linked to strict adherence to these standards, anything outside the rubric will be considered extraneous.  Art, music, drama –  all a waste of time. In what civilized universe is that possible?

I wrote more about this on my other blog, the revised and relaunched  ARTicles, which is an offshoot of the National Arts Journalism Program and features the eloquent voices of some fine former fellows.  You can read about arts education here.  It’s not a waste of time.

Mar. 10 2010 — 12:21 pm | 256 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Baby Einstein (aka Disney) strikes back

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 26:  Baby Einstein DVD...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

A friend, who happens to be an early childhood expert, just got off the phone with the Judge Baker Children’s Center here in Boston. She is withdrawing future support for the Center’s research and will no longer pay membership dues. That’s a tough blow for the community mental health center which, up until today, was well-respected for supporting the well-being of children.

And my friend is not alone.

Advocates for early childhood are fuming about this report in today’s Times. The center provided a home for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a coalition of advocates dedicated to protecting children from consumerism. It got ousted from its office after Disney  complained about the Campaign’s advocacy efforts against Baby Einstein, a Disney-owned franchise.

It seems the big boys at Disney were none too pleased when the Campaign forced its marketing team to take the word “educational” out of its advertising for the Baby Einstein products, which were hyped as a tool to teach your baby to be a genius. The Campaign produced research contending that the company’s videos were not educational at all, but  simply functioned as an electronic babysitter. Threatened with a lawsuit, Disney eventually offered refunds for the videos.

(Disclosure: I bought the Baby Einstein video in a community toy store, when  another parent gave me the hard sales pitch, contending that her husband, a concert pianist, thought they were brilliant. It made my son, then about 15 months old, wail when a dinosaur puppet opened its mouth wide and shouted “Bleh!” Alas, it’s long gone, so I didn’t get my refund.)

Anyway, it was unprecedented that Disney would offer the refunds, although none of the lawyers in the settlement would comment at the time. It seemed so refreshing: A little advocacy group takes on a giant corporate conglomerate and wins. Hey, it’s the stuff of fairy tales, maybe even a Disney cartoon!

But it turns out that Disney didn’t take this one and just walk away. According to Dr. Alvin V. Poussaint, the Harvard psychiatrist who oversees the Campaign and runs a media center at Judge Baker, Disney put up its dukes and complained to the PTB at the community health center. As a result, the tiny advocacy group got booted from its office last month.

This is just incomprehensible. No one from the Center is talking about what conspired during phone calls with Disney, but it is bizarre that a center that prides itself in research and treatment for children’s mental health issues would capitulate to pressure from Hollywood. The uproar that is about to ensue is going to shake the foundation of a community organization that relies on good will and grassroots support.

I have a feeling the phones are ringing off the hook at the Judge Baker Center, and many people are withdrawing their support. And Poussaint, remember, is a Friend of Bill — as in Cosby, another educator who champions the health and education of young children. Disney may have gotten the critics evicted, but these critics are not going to cower when the Big Bad Wolf Business wields its power. A big fat donation from Disney isn’t going to undo the mistrust that’s simmering in the community. The score may be even, but this isn’t over, not yet.

Mar. 9 2010 — 1:16 pm | 3,076 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

Superintendent shoots gun in class, but he isn’t fired

1973 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter rifle

Image via Wikipedia

A superintendent walks into a classroom with a loaded gun. He shoots. Boom! No problem. Nobody’s hurt but the letter “O.”

That sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke. Well, it’s bad all right, but it’s no joke. This actually happened in a rural Montana school district. Superintendent Dwain Haggard, a former Civil War re-enactor, was demonstrating his black powder muzzleloader to a group of high school history students. He took a shot, and the gun went off. He says he “can’t explain” how the gun was loaded.

[Haggard] says he usually fires a cap during the demonstration, but this time there was a loud bang and the room filled with smoke.The ball shot through the “o”  in the word “North” on a wall map.

via Superintendent accidentally fires gun during class – KOLD News 13 live, local and late breaking.

Will someone please tell me, in what sane universe does a high-ranking school official not know that his weapon is loaded? And why is he bringing a gun to school in the first place?

According to the AP report, Haggard contends that no parents complained. Meanwhile, last month at least two little kids were suspended in other parts of the country for bringing tiny toy guns to school. Toy guns that didn’t go off. Toy guns no bigger than two inches long.

Do we have a little problem with consistency here? In two cases, school officials went overboard in their no-guns policy. Yet in this case, a superintendent does something really, really stupid, and nobody cares. Honestly, how could any adult walking into a classroom not know that the gun is loaded? In this day and age, it’s highly questionable whether anyone should be doing this kind of demonstration in a school anyway, but people, how could this possibly happen?

But wait. It’s happened before. A few years ago, a DEA agent accidentally shot himself in the foot with a Glock 40 during a gun safety demonstration in a classroom. And he did it after telling the kids, “I’m the only one professional enough in this room to own a Glock 40.” Nice. And then he idiotically bravely tried to proceed with the gun demonstration, asking an assistant to bring out a military rifle, amid cries of fear from the kids in the classroom. One man walked out with, carrying a terrified little girl on his shoulder.

How do I know this? It was immortalized on YouTube, and the federal agent in question then went on to sue — yes, sue! — the government for releasing the video.

Listen up. If we have a zero tolerance policy against guns in schools, including tiny toy Lego guns, then we ought to have a zero tolerance policy against DEA agents and self-styled military historians giving gun demos in classrooms, even in the name of, ahem, “education.”

As they say, there ought to be a law. Against what? Oh, why don’t we start with stupidity?

DEA agent video below. Viewer discretion is advised.

Mar. 5 2010 — 8:54 am | 87 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

School reform benefits big business

There’s an interesting story in the Wall Street Journal about Pearson PLC, the standardized testing and publishing conglomerate. The company logged a $648 million profit in 2009, and according to the piece, it stands to benefit directly from the Obama admininstration’s drive to develop core common standards for all states. (Some 48 states have signed on to the effort, all but Alaska and Texas.)

How? If all states have the same “standards,” Pearson only needs to develop one test, rather than having to make tests that meet diverse standards in different states. And it could gain significantly by developing systems to assess whether the tests are improving student proficiency.

The implementation of core standards would reduce the burden Pearson faces in adapting materials to individual state requirements. It could also open up an opportunity for Pearson to win a new contract measuring the progress of that common-standards initiative. The degree to which Pearson will reap benefits depends on how many states ultimately opt into the common standards and how specific they are.

via Education Unit Helps Lift Pearson Results – WSJ.com.

The company could also reap profits from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top initiative.

[CEO Marjorie]  Scardino said Pearson could also benefit from $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” grants the Obama administration will begin distributing to states this year for education innovation and reform. Data systems that measure student success, one of Pearson's key product areas, are an emphasis of the grant plan.

via Education Unit Helps Lift Pearson Results – WSJ.com.

Interesting. So who exactly stands to get the most from these reforms? The students? Or the test-makers?

Mar. 4 2010 — 1:45 pm | 97 views | 1 recommendations | 0 comments

O.J. Simpson: role model for students?

Three elementary school teachers in Los Angleles were “removed from their classrooms” this week after complaints of the role models their classes displayed in a Black History Month parade. Kids in some classes carried pictures of folks like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Harriet Tubman, but other kids displayed images of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman, and RuPaul.

The mayor and the NAACP have gotten involved, accusing the teachers (all three white men who teach first, second, and fourth grade) of  “making a mockery of African American history.” Says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa:

“I am shocked and outraged by the actions of these teachers at Wadsworth Elementary School,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “These teachers undermined the school's well-intentioned celebration, and they did so at the expense of elementary school students. Their actions were not only cynical, but did a terrible disservice to the students, their families and all of the teachers who work hard on a daily basis to build trust and a productive learning environment.”

via Villaraigosa blasts alleged mockery of Black History Month – latimes.com.

The teachers aren’t talking, but it is hard to imagine that any teacher would actually believe that Simpson and Rodman are justifiable role models for young children. Simpson, for those who missed the Trial of the Century, was acquitted of murdering his wife and her friend and is now serving nine years for robbery and kidnapping. Rodman is the fast-playing basketball player who scored points for bad behavior both on and off the court. As for RuPaul, the famous drag queen,  you could argue that (s)he is a model of multiculturalism, although you could also argue that his/her inclusion was a deliberate provocation. (RuPaul doesn’t care which pronoun you use: “”You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.”)

Now, it’s long known that many people in the African American community object to Black History Month, alleging that it ghettoizes black culture. February is, after all, the shortest month, and it’s bitter cold. But it’s hard to imagine that’s what this little episode was about. Folks are calling for the teachers to be fired. But some parents interviewed didn’t see it as a big deal. “I kind of laughed at it,” Sharon Tinson told the Associated Press. “I wasn’t offended.” The union has yet to say boo.

But let’s make a comparison. Let’s say the Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School decided to have a parade honoring teachers. Forget Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. Forget Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger accident. Forget David Benke, the teacher who tackled the gunman in the recent school shooting in Littleton, Co. Imagine what the teachers would think if kids paraded around with pictures of these “heroes”: Pamela Smart, now serving a life sentence for hiring her 15-year-old student lover to kill her husband; Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who went to jail after bedding a 12-year-old student and later married him; and Eric Maxwell, the coach who recently threw a volleyball at one of his own players. Somehow, I don’t think the three teachers in question would find that prank so funny, do you?

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    About Me

    I spent a good chunk of my adult life as an arts reporter/critic/columnist for the Boston Globe. Among other things, I covered the cultural wars of the early 1990s (remember Mapplethorpe?), reviewed theater, and profiled all sorts of interesting characters. I also wrote an early column about online culture, which led me to become one of the first online war correspondents during the conflict in Kosovo, an odd but exhilarating gig for an arts maven. While I was a fellow in the National Arts Journalism program, a colleague handed me a gloomy article called “Print is Dead.” I eventually got the message and took a buyout from the Globe in 2001. I had vague dreams of saving the world, but instead had three kids in 17 months. Therein lies my newfound interest in public education. I am hoping to create a dialogue about what’s wrong, what’s right, and what’s up in our schools today.

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    Here’s a piece on new ideas in education, in the Boston Globe Magazine.