Tag Archives: Education

Waiting for Superman: The Human Cost of Bad Education

Holidays, travel, blah blah blah… I’m back. I missed you. We’re getting ready to go back to work, and kids are gearing up to return to school. But when these kids get dropped off, where are they going, really? Where do they spend most of their days?

So I’ve been meaning to watch this movie for a while. I knew our public school system was in peril, and I knew that schools were keeping bad teachers because of union contracts, but I didn’t know just how bad bad was.

If you haven’t seem this film or aren’t an educator, let me tell you: it’s beyond bad. Overwhelmingly shameful, staggeringly inept, purposefully broken, this system is in ruins and has little chances of turning around.

Here are some statistics from the film:

Of the 30 most developed countries on the planet, American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science… that’s out of 30.

But when these same students were asked how they felt they performed in math and science, American students ranked number one in confidence.

And reading skills aren’t any better… just twenty to thirty percent of American public school students are reading at their grade levels.

So we look to the teachers. What’s going on?

In Illinois,

one is 57 doctors will lose their medical license for being a “bad physician”

one in 97 lawyers will lose their law license for being a “bad lawyer”

but only one in 2500 teachers will lose their job if they are deemed a “bad teacher”*

Public school teachers enjoy the same tenure that college professors earn, only at the university level a professor must be on a tenure track for years, contributing to her field of study through teaching, research, and active participation. Public school teachers must simply show up for work for two years… and they have guaranteed jobs for life. Teachers don’t have to teach, they simply have to show up.

Now reform has been attempted. What about performance-based salary increases for excellent teachers? What about removing tenure in favor of incentivizing? The teachers’ unions won’t even discuss the matter, and given their multi-million dollar contributions to political parties, they won’t be asked to anytime soon.

So this antiquated, ruinous public policy continues to push ill-prepared students through “dropout factory” schools, and sure enough, these kids don’t make it to graduation.

A high school dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison.

By the year 2020, 123 million jobs will be available, but require a college degree. America will only produce about 20 million qualified candidates.

So it’s no wonder companies are going overseas to recruit engineers and scientists.

It’s a complicated problem. Often parents are unaccountable, and drop their kids off at school, rolling the dice, because really, they have no choice. Private school is not an option, and with disengaged public school teachers providing less than the full amount of required education for those kids to move forward, students are pushed through and cannot test up to their levels. Frustrated and uninspired, those kids check out.

7000 students drop out every day.

As a teacher for a college preparatory company I’m in an interesting position because I get kids from both public and private schools. And there’s a difference in how these kids perform. I hate to say it out loud. A couple of personal  and general observations… this isn’t true for every single student but:

  • Private school students are more likely to participate in class. They ask more questions. They have a greater tendency to show me what they can do… they push harder.
  • Public school students are more likely to “hide” from me. They’d rather try to push through half-efforts or misunderstood assignments in the hopes that I’ll simply accept the work they’ve produced.
  • When a private school kid doesn’t understand, they ask for clarification.
  • When a public school kid doesn’t understand, they say nothing and hope I don’t notice.
  • Private school kids tend to read more for fun. As a result, these students comprehend assigned reading in a more profound way, and have better diction and syntax in their writing.

Having students of drastically varying levels is challenging for any teacher, and I’m not talking about a single underperforming student, or a”star” achiever. I’m talking about a gaping chasm in attitude towards school and cognitive development between public and private school kids.

So what is the solution? Charter schools are a start. These new public schools are not governed by the same rules as traditional public school, and have given the system dire resuscitation. They are funded through both public and private means but are held to standards as set forth in their charters. These schools are accountable, they hire engaging teachers, and consistently work hard to ensure that every student is keeping up, not simply being passed on. Charter schools are working, but because they are still a relatively nascent development, the space available is limited. So parents scramble and again, roll the dice, entering their children in charter lotteries for one of the very few and coveted spots. A heartbreaking moment in the film, to literally watch a child’s future path be determined by a bingo ball.

Want to fix the economy? Our kids need to be educated to contribute. Want to decrease crime? Our kids need to feel successful every day in school. Want to keep America employed?

Watch this film now. Today.

* The statistics in the film have been widely disputed. Some sources claim they’re inaccurate and that the film scapegoats teachers. I’m not suggesting that all public school teachers are milking tenure, but the numbers (and the film) as a whole prove a point: public school tenure can be abused and while adults are protecting their jobs they are damaging kids every day.


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Filed under Arts and Letters, The English Department

The Philosophy Store

How funny it is, and tragic, the way most people invision the worth of a degree in the humanities. I remember when I graduated from Cal and the commencement speaker suggested that getting an English degree was like “planting an existential question mark on your forehead.” He was a writer in Los Angeles, a successful one at that, and though excited by the day, I remember being irked by that remark. I remembered this moment after reading an interesting article by English professor Mark Bauerlein on the cost of literary research.  Dr. Bauerlein even did a financial analysis on academic literary output, and while I agree with his argument to a point, it left me with that same irksome feeling.

For so long now, non-humanistic studies have been the focus of the academy. Universities put up state-of-the-art MBA facilities and add flat panels to their science wings, while the English and History folks huddle together in drafty, aged classrooms. I get it, resources go where the money is at. I suspect one of the reasons literary folks are often wary of new technology is because it’s the industry associated with the marginalization of literary studies. Why would an academic embrace something that pushes out her craft, symbolically, economically, even socially? And Dr. Bauerlein is right in that English departments can’t afford to bury their heads and pretend this negative cash bleed isn’t happening. But I wonder if we just aren’t getting the message out; maybe we need to create a marketing movement for the humanities? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but saying something about the value of English matters, I think.

One of my brilliant instructors turned our class onto a beautifully-written article by Mark Slouka on the ways in which humanities gets a bad rap, and how that devalued reputation has become the lynchpin for the sinking American educational system. Slouka discusses how “our [American] orthodoxy is economic” and without a cost-benefit analysis that makes sense, the intangible product of clear thinking becomes a luxury for which our citizens are no longer willing to throw down. Many, if not most Americans think like Slouka’s mother-in law, who when hearing her future son-in-law was earning a Ph.D in literature, queried: “A doctor of philosophy,” she said. “What’re you going to do, open a philosophy store?”

Like the English folks have been saying, I suspect along with the rest of the humanities crew, the value is not in product but in process. Slouka says it best:

The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.

The value of clear thought, of cogent reasoning, of critical thinking is in a dire state if we cannot see the value of an education in English. It’s a critical underpinning for the educated, and its absence creates consequences far more devastating than typos. In The Demon-Haunted World, non-English major and cosmologist Carl Sagan closes his opus with the following:

If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.





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Filed under Arts and Letters, The English Department, Writers on Writing

Dragonballz and Runaway Trains: The Engaging Classroom

A classroom irony: when it’s time for students to drill down and complete assignments, they want to chat, but when discussion time hits, they clam up. Often the silence is not for lack of doing the work, but kids, when asked an evocative question, find themselves fearful of getting the answer wrong, so rather than risk looking “stupid” in front of their peers, they say nothing.

In defense of language arts, English teachers do try to mix it up. We dutifully put desks in circles instead of rows to encourage kids to share ideas and insights, not just dispense “the right answer” to the teacher. In literature, there’s really no right answer, no sum of all the parts. My old thinking was that language is an interdisciplinary subject, taking into account history, architecture, politics, human experiences. But really, all subjects are this interdisciplinary. “A train track is 300 miles long. On one end of the track, Train A leaves the station at 4 p.m. On the opposite end of the track, Train B leaves leaves at 6 p.m.. If Train A travels 45 mph and Train B travels 60 mph, when will they meet?” I have absolutely no clue what the answer is, but it seems to me that math, science, finance… all of the subjects we teach, we teach under the guise of allowing kids to engage with each other, but somehow, they still aren’t engaged. So what are we doing wrong?

Every morning in my Book Club class, a group of boys would gather together in the back of the room around a tiny screen before I arrived. Once I began class, everyone would settle in, but I always wondered what they were up to. Finally one morning, I came in a bit early and asked.

“It’s this virtual world game,” one boy explained, “you set up a world and create characters and basically have control over this whole universe of stuff.”

“Yeah,” said another kid “it’s pretty awesome. I play about eight hours a day.”

I then collected their essays. The boys weren’t writing at grade level. They both were“calling it in” on creative assignments, where again, there’s no wrong answer, but the lack of imagination and use of vocabulary was obvious. How could boys—smart boys—have so much imagination as to spend their days creating universes on their computers, but couldn’t muster a fraction of that inspiration onto a piece of paper?

The next day I asked the two boys to write a short essay on why each of their game “worlds” was better than the others’. I also told the boys they could share their work with each other… sort of like writing partners. This was a bit of a competition for the two of them (they got loud), but more importantly, an exercise in writing the persuasive essay. I asked them to use the structures I had provided that week, but instead of writing about our curriculum topics, I wanted to see if they could work on their own terms. They did the assignment together. That night I went home, made some tea, and graded papers for the following morning.

The results were staggering. Sure, some spelling and grammar errors remained, and it was clear where they shared ideas, but the imagination and use of language blew my mind. I could experience these worlds and the dwellers within, the pineapple-rough skin of the dragon, the crunch of the sugar in the bubble gum pie… these kids were brilliant writers. Sitting in my living room I felt my eyes well up, not because I had succeeded with these kids, but because for so long, I really hadn’t.

If we don’t allow students to drive education, to tell us how to engage them in real ways to inspire their imaginations and growth, teachers will continue to pass out exams with foregone results, to a wary classroom, still afraid to speak up.

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Filed under Fun Stuff, The English Department

Five Revision Tips for the Non-Writer

So you need to write better copy, right this minute? Here are five writer basics to pretty up your business writing today.

1) Just Say It

You don’t have to get fancy with diction to sound smart. A reader becomes suspicious of an idea or message if the word choice seems out of context, especially in product descriptions or sales correspondence. Use words you know. If it makes sense to up the lexical ante, let an editor or at least another set of eyes take a pass at it.

2) Stop Clearing Your Throat

Writing means rewriting. It means cutting out redundant sentences, excess phrases,and wordy descriptions. Industry letters don’t need to begin with “from the dawn of civilization” introductions. If your audience speaks your lingo, these kinds of openings will fatigue your reader. It’s okay (and welcome!) to just get to your point. Do you really need to say “due to the fact that” when “that” or “because” usually mean the same thing? And in most cases, double descriptors are usually unnecessary: people understand that ice is cold, night is dark, and clowns are scary.

Make no mistake... Bobo will cut you.

3) Less is Still More

Getting your message out is the easy part; social media outlets mean you can tweet, post, blog, and e-blast everyone, all the time, telling all how great your product is and why they must have it. Don’t.

Users fatigue quickly, and if the message even whiffs of self-serving, sales-y woo ha, you’ll lose credibility faster than you can say “woo ha”. Keep your message subdued, talk about the other benefits your company offers (charities, global partnerships, your employees’ stories, your vendors’ missions) to engage your readership in an oblique way. Bludgeoning people with offers and urgency is not marketing, it’s spamming.

4) Cross and Dot

Grammar and punctuation matter—there’s no getting around it. Readers will trip over Fake Proper Nouns You’ve Made Up & ampersands when you should use the word “and” instead. Tripping means readers lose interest and you lose credibility. Also: spell-check doesn’t catch everything; “too bee ore knot two bee” is perfectly spelled and completely nonsensical. If you’re sending an important piece of news out to press or to the masses online, have a proofreader take a gander.

5) George is Right

Number six on George Orwell’s “Five Rules for Effective Writing” reads: “Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.” Kind of a non-rule rule (probably why it’s named number six out of five), but you get the point. If it sounds ridiculous then don’t write it. Despite what old-school grammar guides say, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. I’d never say “Please hand me something with which to write,” but “Please give me a pen to write with.” Really… it’s cool. So are contractions.

Bottom line: reading is about the reader, not the writer. Keeping audience comfort at the forefront of your message will always produce better writing.

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Filed under The English Department, Writers on Writing

A Writer’s Guide to Procrastination

I’m not sure why certain things inspire me to write. Often it seems the things that inspire me the most haven’t much to do with writing, or anything else really. Client work is one thing— as a hired pen working on someone else’s movement, I’ve been known to get more fired up than the client. But when it’s my own stuff, my creative work, well, it’s a different story. Kind of like giving great advice to your friend about her love life, while wondering why you’re still single. So, on those days when the words just won’t come out, I usually just get outside and look around.

Some days it might be walking through Chinatown, passing all the colorful tourist shops and little alleyway tea houses…

… other days it could be seeing a new  statue,


… and still others, it could be something totally off-kilter, like shopping at Daiso. Have I mentioned how much I love Daiso? I love Daiso. All the colorful notebooks and bizarre beauty products and seemingly silly but somehow useful products (all less than three bucks, mind you—danger!). I know it’s weird, but Daiso makes me want to write.

(These are banana holders.)

The one common thread I find in the things, or places, or moments that make me hit the keyboard is usually aesthetic. Color, paper, texture, nature… they all nudge me in some direction. And roaming around the city in places I don’t normally go does the trick too, when I’m especially fidgety.

It’s funny, because when I teach, I tell my students—exhort them—to just write, write about anything. Write about the boy who broke your heart last week, write about how you’re the only twelve-year-old who knows how to jailbreak an Iphone, write about how much you love to play violin, hate your P.E. class, enjoy playing chess even though you know it makes you, in certain high school circles, a nerd. Just write. And yet when I sit down to do the very thing I insist my kids do, I go crazy. I can’t insist myself into writing creatively… try to make something happen when it clearly doesn’t want to. So, usually, I’ll find something to do until the words decide to line up and situate themselves onto a page. It can take a while, but somehow, they always seem to find their way.

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Filed under Fun Stuff

Grammar Fails and Crowded Cubicles

Sad but true: As a writer, grammar fails always make me giggle. It’s lexical Schadenfreude and I’m super guilty of it. Now there are some considered moderately passable, given the general state of the English language in the U.S. (word choice or subject-verb agreement boo-boos). Yes I may wince, but I let it go because no one else will notice and I look like a prissy nerd. Okay okay. I get it.

For sports, clearly. English? Not so much.

But when high-ranking universities have advertisements soliciting M.B.A. students have these kinds of errors, I take photos. Blurry photos, but yes. Photos. I take them (sorry the BART was moving…).

Now I know it’s hard to see, so let me transcribe the last sentence for you:

“All business programs are part-time and designed for busy working professionals who seek the knowledge and skills to accelerate their career.”

I read this the other night and winced so hard. Really, Top-Ranking-University-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless? Their career? All busy working professionals share a single career? That’s one crowded cubicle.

Um, excuse me. Have you seen my Swingline stapler?

Somebody over there needs a lesson in number agreement, and possibly, a proofreader.

I know what you’re thinking. “Cyn– no one is going to notice that. It’s a small error…  not a grammar fail. RELAX Popper.”

No. I will not relax. This is not victorious scribe plastered onto a windshield for a tailgate party by a Zima-infused* frat boy. This is an ad campaign–an expensive ad campaign– for a top-ranking M.B.A. program by a UNIVERSITY.  Big difference. I’ll write about grammar fails and context another time because that is a topic altogether different.

I know what your thinking. “Cyn– everyone makes typos. YOU make typos in this silly blog, and you’re a writer!”

Yes. That’s true. I do. Because  I’m fallible and this is a work/life blog. Mistakes get made. Commas, occasionally, get spliced.  But when a client is creating a thousands-of-dollars campaign, and I’m in charge of the copy, it’s a different story. If after a series of rewrites and revisions I’m not sure about a grammar bit or a style choice, I look it up or consult a fellow editor. For large projects I might even bring in a second proofreader. Whatever it takes to make sure that the client’s image is congruent with the branding. That might not even require a “carping grammarian”... but if it does, I become one. (Bonus geek points if you know who came up with “carping grammarian”).

Hint: It was this guy.


And for an academic client… really. What else can I say? Students pay a huge tuition to ensure they get a good education. Tee hee.

Okay I’m done. 😉

* Does Zima still exist?

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Filed under Fun Stuff, The English Department, Uncategorized

Moments of Clarity and A New Use for Durian

Why hello there Kind Reader (how Miss Manners of me),

On my recent journey to Southeast Asia, I spent a few days wandering around the island of Lombok, mostly in the tiny town of Kuta. No, not the Hard Rock Cafe/Tijuana night club/Mecca for Drunken Aussies Kuta (that’s Bali). But Kuta Lombok: a quiet, mini-village nestled on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

The beach beauty defines language, but I’ll give it a shot. Powdery white sand meets cobalt waters…really, it’s almost stupid to try and describe it. The feeling of serenity and quiet that came over me was surprising–almost jarring. I became hyper-aware: my eyes couldn’t process what they were seeing fast enough to tell my brain what to think. I sat, quite dumbstruck, looking at this vast, pure expanse of exquisite nature and thinking: wahhhh? What is this? Where am I? It’s quiet, lovely, relaxing, and aside from a handful of other foreign gawkers, undiscovered.

The rest of Kuta? Not much is going on, really. My partner, Martin* and I hopped on a scooter and promptly got lost, meandering the hillsides where we found tiny villages, little enclaves of community living in the same way they have for centuries. Most are weavers, some are farmers, and some have little boys who, upon seeing a Western female, will promptly whip out their baby manhood and display it in all its tiny glory, straight up in the middle of the dirt road. Martin laughed and scolded the proto-deviant, which of course, the little perv couldn’t understand. I was somewhere between shocked, amused, and mildly flattered. I mean… what do you say? “Thanks Little Perv, for the creepy-bizarro greeting. Just gonna go over here now, and gouge my eyes out with a Durian.” But I digress.

My smelly, tasty weapon of choice.

Back in the village– well it’s technically a village but really just one dirt road with a few shops and hotels– I noticed a faded blue building with lots of Muslim girls and boys shuffling about out front. The sign was in Indonesian but I was sure it had to be a school. After a couple of hours I decided to walk by and sure enough, in traditional Indo-friendly fashion, I got my in.

“Hello!” It was a local man, possibly in his late twenties, sitting in the school courtyard with a few head-scarved female students.

“Hello!” I shouted back. “Is this a school?”

“Yes, please come talk to us.” So I did. Turned out he was the Math teacher, who spoke decent English. After a bit of chatting, well… I couldn’t help myself.

“Would it be alright if I came tomorrow and sat with the English class?” The girls mumbled to each other. Only one girl spoke enough English to understand my question.

His face beamed. “Yes of course! Please come and talk with the students! Yes yes yes!”

I was thrilled. So the next day I stopped by, and Martin, being bored, came along with his Iphone. The video is brief but you get the idea. Later (not shown) even the Math teacher sat in as student!

Sigh. I’ve been so fortunate to make a life with words. Writing, marketing, heck– I’ll even throw in acting. But nothing, nothing comes close to the feeling I get when I teach kids who are this excited to learn. Sort of like Kuta Beach: indescribable, beyond a physical beauty ever thought possible, effortless as air,  filling me in a way nothing else ever could.

Note: If you have trouble with the links… check out Popper Creative on Facebook where I’ve also embedded them.

* Thanks for the clips, Martin. (He still insists on Martin. One day I’ll get him to come out…)

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Filed under Arts and Letters, Fun Stuff, The English Department