Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Teach for America application essays

Here are the two essays I wrote for my application to Teach for America. I received a rejection saying I was ineligible for the program since I didn't have the 2.5 GPA that TFA requires because it's required by some states for teacher certification purposes or something, so I'm assuming the essays were never read.

1st essay: The topic was “A Time You Overcame an Obstacle to Success”

Success, I think, is actually a somewhat vague concept. The idea of success that’s most prevalent in our schools, corporations, and social circles could probably be described as “getting ahead,” or “beating out others.” We compete for grades, we compete for scholarships, we compete for internships, we compete for jobs… And then that’s when the real competition begins.

I grew up going to a K-12 private college prep school in Huntsville Alabama. I remember in middle school, grades were everything to me. That’s just what my friends did at the time, I guess: play computer games and maximize the grades on our next test, our report card, etc. As far as I was concerned, education = grades. I had no conception of what one would be like without the other.

Gradually I began to differentiate between the two. Around 10th grade, I remember being in a math class that was covering something I had learned about year ago. I remembered that I had understood it pretty well a year ago, had gotten a 99 or something on the test, but a year later, I was totally clueless again. This troubled me a little bit at the time, but I didn’t really know what to do about it, so for the most part I went on trying to make good grades, believing that was the right approach for learning how to function in society.

In college, around the end of my sophomore year, I finally got it. Grades only have meaning within the academic/corporate cultures that use them. They have little relation to how smart students are, and much more relation to how willing they are to follow directions and how much time they willing to invest in them.

The problem is that schools spend little time on providing actual educations for students (teaching how society works) and too much time on training them for life in “the real world” (aka the privatized corporate business world). Sure the content may be geared toward education, but the method through which students are evaluated twists it toward corporate training.

We’ve replaced the natural reasons for learning (wanting to know how society works, how it can be improved), with “incentives” and “motivators” like grades to some extent, but most glaringly adult approval. The result is that learning occurs through imitation of processes rather than through the creation/recreation of ideas. (See my Letter of Intent.)

For me, my reasons for learning are now much more varied than simply the desire to get good grades/the approval of others. I want to learn math and physics, because I find it interesting to learn the stories behind technology, how we are able to do all the amazing things and are able to make such accurate predictions about how the world works.

Most students today equate success with acceptance into a corporate structure. They get jobs because it pays well, because it has “upward mobility”; usually not because they believe in their work. I believe my greatest success in school has been to escape form this approach to education, and begin to truly learn about our society, and how I can contribute to its progress.

2nd essay: The topic was "Why I want to join Teach for America"

Learning can be approached as imitation or as creation/re-creation.

Most teachers are somewhat aware of this distinction: they might call it memorization vs. understanding, higher level vs. lower level, or something like that. The problem is imitation is the only method that is commonly taught, because imitation is the only method that can be effectively graded. And most teachers rely on some sort of grade, or reward mechanism to control their classes.

I believe these two methods have very little in common; that being able to imitate the process of getting a “right answer”, writing a “5-paragraph essay”, etc has little to do with being able to create/recreate for yourself why math is useful in developing technologies or recreating in your mind why our country is so politically divided along party lines.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe imitation has its place; society, reality, is built on imitation. And in school also. In order to get a degree, students should prove they have attained a minimum level of proficiency in reading, writing, math and science, and imitation is a perfectly acceptable method of attaining this minimum level.

But our understanding! Our ideas! Our ideas should never be subjected to learning by imitation. An idea that is learned through imitation has no purpose, no vision of its potential, of what it could be. Imitation has its functional place in reality; there it should remain.

I believe progress is achieved through innovation, through the creation/recreation of vibrant ideas. Imitation can serve to spread and maintain existing social structures, but ideas are kept alive by people believing in them, not by people imitating what they have been told.

I think Teach for America is one of these vibrant ideas that people believe in, and that is serving to help our society progress. I believe I would benefit from and could contribute a lot to the Teach for America program. Otherwise, I’m planning on working in a high school somewhere in the southeast anyway, so no biggie either way. : )

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why I support Ralph Nader for President

For me, I guess it comes down to moral authority of government. Should government be a source of moral authority? In other words, should citizens be able to look to their government when trying to find some direction or sense of community for their lives?

I believe so.

The separation of church and state does not require the absence of moral authority from government. Our nations most celebrated achievements have a significant moral dimension to them. Civil rights, the end of slavery, and the founding of our country were all at least partly pursued due to the moral claim that “All men ['men' in the universal, un-gendered sense, of course] are created equal.”

In fact, without access to government, morality itself can become impotent, unable to take significant action.

Both the Democrat and Republican parties have become dependent on corporations to:
  1. provide media coverage that champions their platform
  2. donate an unlimited amount of soft money to the parties, and
  3. help pay for political rallies, such as the parties’ national conventions.
[Not to mention the unavoidable dependence politicians will have to corporations threatening to move jobs out of their district.] Hence, both parties have rejected the moral issues that Nader is trying to address: poverty, lack of medical attention, disease caused by pollution/other corporate abuses. Both parties have instead come to embrace a "corporate moral relativism" whose only ideology is that of dollars and markets.

To quote Neil Postman’s book The End of Education:
“Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future…
“The measure of a narrative’s ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ is in its consequences: Does it provide people with a sense of personal identity, a sense of a community life, a basis for moral conduct?"
“Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives;” not in our capacity to create dollars.

Corporations, when they are granted too much political influence, demand that our “narratives,” our sense of community life, be rooted within business, within our economic interactions with others. That's why they demand our schools place standardized test-taking above all other concerns, such as civic participation, staying healthy, or pursuing extra-curricular interests. That’s why corporations make sure they have control over the media and the messages we hear on TV, which are often opinions from corporate-funded think-tanks.
Why? To make sure we hear the message that the creation of “wealth” (as defined in terms of monetary exchanges) is the only real way to help people, the only real ideology to build a life around.

And that’s where they get it wrong. It’s NOT money that decides what’s worthwhile; it’s the reasoned judgment of individuals.

Reasoned. As in free from the tyranny of greed, which INEVITABLY will play a role in judgment, when men trying to climb the corporate ladder gain influence over our political institutions. Of course such men will pull political strings to save their business some money; they have their employees (real people they interact with everyday) to think of and all.
Corporate abuse shouldn’t just be pinned on rogue individuals; it is a systematic problem within the structure of our economy.
And it comes at the cost of thousands of deaths and infections caused by air pollution, hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars used to pay corporate bills, and millions of people in our country living in conditions that could be improved by responsible congressional action.

I believe that Ralph Nader understands as well as, if not better than anyone, how to use government to help people, without damaging the capitalist institutions and values that have made our economy great. Equally important to me, he is standing up against the corporate moral relativism that is communicated through the structuring of our educational, industrial, and news-media systems.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sports and our culture

Read this introduction to White Fang by Jack London.

“A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozenhearted Northland Wild.

“But there was life, abroad in the land and defiant. ...

“On wide snowshoes, toiled a man. At the rear of the sled toiled a second man. On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over—a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again. It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man—man, who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement.”

Our society takes the wrong approach to sports. We see sports as competition against other people; this is not as it should be. Sports are a competition not against other people but a competition against Nature, against “the Wild”. And don’t for a second believe we have overcome the Wild’s desire to end our movement with technology. Look at a nursing home; we are still “ever in revolt” against a Nature that will “crush into submission man”.

Sports are not about winning. They’re a competition not against other men, but against Nature. Sports are about movement, and not letting old-age or apathy destroy it.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Substitute Teaching

I’ve been substitute teaching for about 3 weeks now; it’s not hard, sometimes kinda fun, and pays $70 a day for about 4 and half hours of actual teaching (you have to be there for 7 hours though, planning periods and lunch and all.) I’ve mainly done middle school math classes, and the teachers usually leave some pretty basic worksheet for the students to work on for the whole period. A few kids wanna actually learn how to do the work and all, about half the class just wants to talk, some kids want to run and throw stuff around, and the rest of the class just sits there bored out of their minds.

Okay, now I ask myself, why are most these kids even here? The ones who actually want to learn, alright yeah makes sense, but the rest? Why can’t they be outside playing or doing that they have an actual interest in? Yeah, there’s the whole you need to know stuff for college, for your future job, etc, but is this really relevant when you’re in middle school? I’m not sure our current education system has a good answer to these questions.

The way I see it, our K-12 education system vastly overemphasizes graded coursework. Before I go any further, let me say what is good about graded coursework, and why it is an important part of our education system. 200 years ago, there was virtually no economic mobility in our society: if your parents were poor, you would also be poor. The poor simply had no access to any sort of economic opportunities. Now, that has changed. Now, everyone goes to school, and everyone is ranked by their grades. Any one who makes mostly A’s in high school can at least go to their state university, and if they do well there, they have access to all types of high-paying salaries. It doesn’t matter what family you are from, who you know, or what “connections” you have; ranking people by their grades gives everyone access to many of the economic opportunities within our society.

Having said that, I believe our society vastly overemphasizes graded coursework. Education could and should be about so much more than the allocation of economic opportunities. Yet students spend 6 hours a day in classrooms, grades K-12, in order to be ranked, sorted, and inserted into the economic position that they “earned.” Like I said earlier, I think there is value in this process, but I believe we should spend maybe 3 years, grades 10-12 on it, rather than the 13 years we currently spend on grading coursework and analyzing standardized test scores.

Seriously, is anyone else tired of being told what to study, what to do with all your time? I mean, it’s not so bad if you have a clear idea of what career you want, and are doing the work to get the degree that allows you to have that career. But do we really need to shut fifth and sixth-graders in classrooms for 6 hours a day forcing them to study triangles, governments in Asia, how to classify rocks, literature that they have no interest in, etc? And then we give them an hour or two of homework a night, on top of all that? Come on! We don’t need to spend 13 years on all this crap in order to get kids to the minimum level of proficiency at reading, writing, and manipulating numbers that our economy requires.

From grades K-8 or 9, there is no good reason to pressure kids into learning. School at this level should rather be a supportive community where kids are allowed to freely pursue their interests. (A couple of them might even be interested in those triangles, rocks, or literature.) I’m reading a book about a school in Massachusetts called Sudbury Valley that has no set courses for students to attend. If students are interested in something, they find others who are interested and talk to them or they read books about it; they design their own courses of study, if they choose to have any courses at all. The idea behind this approach is that we’re now in a post-Industrial economy that needs innovative workers, while our country’s current educational system is based on an Industrial economy that requires workers who can easily learn to do specific repetitive tasks. Here are a couple excerpts from some articles about the school that help explain the school’s philosophy.

“People come to SVS and see it as being in "perpetual recess," and it gives them a little twinge and perhaps they start worrying. But just remember this: these schools that we all grew up in, with their classes, their curricula, their SAT's and Achievement Tests and Placement Tests, their grade levels and exams, these schools are relative newcomers to the scene! They're only about one-hundred-fifty years old. They were started by people who sat down and thought about education and said, "This is the kind of school we need to create a great industrial society." And do you know what happened? People in the 19th century used to walk into those "newfangled schools" and experience culture shock! They'd say, "This is a school? My kids could be spending their time productively out in the fields on the farm. They could be apprenticing as tradesmen, or as craftsmen, or doing all sorts of useful things. You mean to tell us that taking kids and sitting them at desks and having them write on chalkboards, that's a school? You're calling that education?" They had just as weird a feeling then as people have today looking at Sudbury Valley! It took many, many years for people to get used to the industrial-age schools which are so accepted now!” – from http://www.sudval.com/05_underlyingideas.html#08

“I always get into arguments about “the basics,” especially with academicians. They always come back to me with math. I love it when people discuss math, because I cannot imagine a subject that more people hate than math. It is universally hated, but nevertheless everybody comes back with, “How are they going to make it in life if they don’t all know math?” My answer is always, “As far as I know, nobody ever uses math, really, unless they’re in a math-related field, like engineering.” The truth is, if a kid wants to become an engineer he’s going to figure out pretty early on that if he doesn’t know math he’s not going to be an engineer, and he’ll learn math quickly and easily, which is our experience. There’s nothing to it when you want to learn it. But I don’t even try to teach anybody who isn’t invested in learning math. I keep asking people: if they walked into a supermarket and went to the cash register, and had a cashier there with a piece of paper who started putting down a long column of all the prices on the things in their carriage, and then started adding it up the way they were taught in school, would they ever shop in that supermarket again? And would they trust the addition? It’s ridiculous!” - from http://www.sudval.com/05_underlyingideas.html#05

I do believe in the ideas behind universal education, that knowing how society works is something everyone can benefit from. However, I disagree with the idea of pressuring and coercing students to learn, especially to the extent that our current educational system does. As a teacher I will do my best to encourage without pressuring, requiring, or coercing my students.