reading at desk

That time my high school principal thought yelling would be a great way to inspire me to read

I’m sure I’m not the only person that has random, unimportant memories of long-ago events. I keep remembering a time in high school where my high school principal yelled at me for borrowing a library book.

It was his idea that on Wednesdays we’d read a book for 22-minutes during homeroom. Or as the contemporaries called it, “Activity Period”. What a dumb, soul-sucking name.

Wednesday’s “activity” was silent, sustained reading, which begat the soul-sucking SSR acronym straight from some equally wretched “workgroup”.

I had finished whatever book I had been reading about ten minutes into the allotted time. Not being a psychopath, I wasn’t keen on just starting right back on page 1. So I asked to go to the library, was granted permission, and walked downstairs. After a few minutes I picked up another and walked back upstairs.

Just as I exited the library, the principal turned to me and yelled, “Where is your book young man?” It was in my hand. In fact, it was the only thing I had on me. In retrospect, I probably should have asked if he had just been staring at the sun and couldn’t see it. Maybe he thought I had come downstairs for tea.

“Just finished one and came to get another,” I said, holding up the book. I didn’t stop walking.

Then I remember turning around and standing there watching him yell and stomp around because I wasn’t actively reading. No one else was around. It was just him and me in the hallway. My only hope is that the expression on my face was clear I thought he was insane.

He told me I needed to be reading “right now”. Short of sitting down in the hallway, I didn’t know what else he expected me to do. I’m sure I just said “Okay” and walked on.

I also remember the feeling of losing all respect for the man at that moment. Now, all these years later, the fact I even remember this at all irritates me. Literally every time I finish a book or pick up another I think, “Should I call him and ask if it’s okay that I finished a book today?” What a terrible thing to think.

Today I look back on this and think three things:

  1. We know task-switching leaves “residue” on our brains. You can’t go from, say, cooking a new recipe to replying to emails without your brain thinking about the last thing you just did for a while. Most estimates are about 15 minutes to fully switch tasks. So in a 22-minute reading slot, about 7 minutes are actually useful. What a waste.
  2. I’m sure the whole exercise was designed to check a box at the end of the school year to say, “The kids read a combined 9 hours of sustained independent reading.” And really, isn’t that sad for any activity? “Over six months, we spent 9 hours reading!” I’m sure it’s also the only way they could guarantee some people even read anything at all.
  3. The most damning legacy of our schools is that they are centers for knowledge transfer, not a place for instilling a love of learning. Events like this are why fully a third of Americans admit to not reading a single book in a year.

We say that phrase “love of learning” and a lot of people roll their eyes. It is a wimpy phrase. But we should really think about it as “Teaching people how to do hard things with our minds”. Everyone has to do this to get ahead. You want to learn how to write a new programming language, drive or operate a new piece of machinery, install something, offer a compelling report, manage your health, learn new exercises, or design a new tool? You’re going to need to have sustained and focused effort at that task. It’s during processes like these to improve ourselves or our work that we have displayed an ability to grok new things. To learn!

Reading just happens to be the most common activity people do that requires a little thought. Watching TV, for instance, is passive. Reading requires comprehension of the words and, in most cases, imagining the events and people involved in your head. Like how driving to the store down the street is passive, but walking there is active. Neither is likely hard, but one is certainly more active.

For most adults who don’t enjoy reading today, we’d do well to ask ourselves why. I now recognize I struggled to find books I actually enjoyed reading. It took me over 10 years to realize I liked biographies and memoirs. I read one in 10th grade — a book I picked up from a Walden Books, but didn’t make the connection that I liked it because it was a memoir. I started reading more from time to time, but it took me another ten years to figure that out and learn that fiction just isn’t my jam. In retrospect, I don’t recall there being a lot of historical biographies on the shelves of my school library. Maybe there were, but I just hadn’t figured that out.

But militant yelling and drilling don’t help a 15-year-old, either. Maybe my principal was having a bad day. I’m sure he thought it was my responsibility to make sure I had a book to get through all 22 minutes of reading. But there he is, in the back of my head spitting fire every time I need a new book. I’ve recorded 380 read finished books since I started tracking them on Goodreads. That’s 380 times that memory has hijacked my thoughts.

We talk a lot about the educators who shape our lives and make a long-lasting impact on us and our kids. But we should also talk about the educators who did the opposite. If we do, it might remind educators that as hard as their job is, every interaction can be mind-altering.

About College Course Descriptions

I just spent the last hour registering for courses at IUPUI for the spring semester. It was worse than doing my taxes. It’s the most awful experience ever created. I’d rather shove rusty wooden spoons into my eyes than deal with finding course descriptions, figuring out when classes are offered, who teaches the courses and what I’ll actually be doing. It’s really, really bad. Really, god awful, bad.

The process starts when I reach for my course schedule to figure out how many credits are left (too many) and what classes I still need to take. For me, as an Informatics student, I’m given a lot of different computer-related options.

So, I decide to lookup up this 400-level class called “Multimedia Project Development”. The course description reads:

This course will focus on total project design and development of interactive multimedia applications. Topics to be covered include system design and development, selection of appropriate hardware and software platforms, use of productivity tools, project management, dynamics of team-based project development, cost analysis, prototyping, pilot testing, and other evaluation/usability techniques to ensure product quality. Students will work in teams to develop large-scale projects.

Luckily, I worked for the government for nearly four years and I can cut past the bullshit. Allow me to translate (follow along with the above passage for even more fun):

This course will focus on a website. We’ll talk about  our server, the Dell you will be using, Windows and we’ll make the website in Adobe Dreamweaver using HTML 4. We’ll also figure out what our plan is as we go, whether or not we can afford it (and since this isn’t real, you know it is, otherwise it would be a really long semester) and you’ll be forced to work with nutjob whackos who can’t shave, dress themselves or turn on a washing machine. You’ll end up doing all the work, so it’ll be sorta like a regular HTML class.

I couldn’t figure out when the class was offered, or if it ever even was, so I gave up and looked up this gem called “Research in Design Methods”. Its description reads:

This course is designed to give students an understanding of the advanced concepts of theoretical topics, simulation modeling, and analysis concepts. Students will investigate applications of simulation in systems characterized by probabilistic behavior.

Translation: Read this, then write a paper.

Since I’m not really interested in wasting time writing what will end up being an historical reference piece after 3 weeks of sitting on my hard drive, I moved on. Plus, I’m more interested in being grounded in reality than theory.Then, I found this humdinger, “Online Document Development II” (I don’t see a part I):

Advanced creation, publication, and management of interactive publications for online distribution with the inclusion of emerging technologies for a media-rich experience. Topics include interactive Web site development, animations for the Web, online interactive design, document conversion, file exchanges, and digital media development for online usage

Gee, why don’t you say what you really think. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, what I’d be doing or why. That sounds like an orgy of everything ever published on the web all merged into a giant, unruly PDF document.

So, to every college and university in the country, I demand you simplify your course descriptions. For some of the supposedly smartest institutions in the nation, you people write course descriptions like you were mentally handicapped in some sort of nuclear reactor tragedy.

Too Cool for School

I’m not sure where I fall on this matter:

When the Indiana Education Roundtable met last month, Gov. Mitch Daniels had recommended reading for its members. He gave each a copy of Charles Murray’s “Real Education.”

“Provocative,” the governor told the Roundtable at the meeting’s end, and the author’s views have “changed the way I think about education.”

A few of Murray’s primary assertions:

•“There’s not much that even the best schools can do to raise the reading and math achievement of low-ability children.”

•“One of the most damaging messages of educational romanticism has been that everyone should go to college.”

•“The proposition is not that America’s future should depend on an elite that is educated to run the country, but that whether we like it or not, America’s future does depend on an elite that runs the country.”

Honestly, at first I thought, “Oh. That all makes sense. Not everyone can do everything. Some people, quite frankly are just dumb. Always were and always will be.” Then, I kept reading and it turns out my initial thought makes me racist and terrible. Turns out, educators on an education roundtable don’t like it when someone tells them that what they’re doing might not be that great.

On one hand, I don’t doubt that some geneticist could come along and say, “Look at this, I found the “smart” gene” that proves people are capable of scoring well on some standardized test that doesn’t mean much anyway.

On the other hand, I don’t doubt you could find a “dumb gene” that makes you do one piss poor job on a test like ISTEP or the SAT, either. Thus, why can’t we just realize that some people do better at some things than others? Why can’t schools just try to give people a decent chance to dabble in lots of different things until people find a niche? We can all agree that everyone has a niche in life, right?

Frankly, you can’t easily write off children when they’re 8 and plop them into some sort of tiered educational system like the article suggests. BUT, speaking from my own experience, I know what I’m good at and what I’m not. Here is a list of things I can’t do:

  • Math
  • Car repair
  • Sports

I’ve never been any good at any of those things. Ever. And I never will be. I don’t have the body for sports. I don’t have the patience or desire to get dirty enough to work on a car (I get mad when I have to get out of my car at the gas station because it smells bad). And I don’t have the ability to do math.

Some would say, “Sure, but you can learn math.” Um, no. Actually, I can’t. It’s been 22 years and I still do basic math on a calculator. Ask me to subtract 23 from 402 and I’m flustered. So, why do we keep wasting money trying to teach me something I clearly can’t do? Beyond basic arithmetic and financial stuff, leave it at that.

I’m not ready to write off Daniels’ or Murray’s opinion. They might be on to something. I’m not, however, ready to slice up kids into class systems that will still favor the wealthy. In my dictatorship everyone gets a chance to dabble in everything — from engineering to dance. Help people find what they can naturally do best and make them great at doing just that.

UPDATE: Abdul over at RTV6 has similar commentary posted on the Capitol WatchBlog.