A new beginning

Over the last three months I have had the good fortune of working with a young man named Seth.  As a home-bound teacher I am responsible for instructing him in mathematics and science. My wife takes care of the other subjects, like English and History. Teaching Seth math has been an up-hill battle to determine what he knows and what he does not know, but over time I have patched up his math skills and taught him a little science as well.  Seth represents an increasing part of our young population who come from broken homes and are moved from place to place, rarely knowing the feeling of a secure home.  About a year ago his aunt and uncle took him in and gave him a loving and stable home.  They enrolled him in the Hampshire high school but this did not work out well for him.  Because he was Angry, combative and confused Seth was taken from the school environment and placed in a home-schooled environment which better suited his temperament.  From the moment I met Seth I wondered where the angry young man was who had been removed from school because he was polite, witty and sometimes hard-working.  Overall, he was a delightful young man.

His aunt and uncle who are now his legal guardians were advised that the Mountaineer Challenge program would be a good place for Seth to be.  This is a program which takes young adults who may not function well in the public school system and gives them a fast track to their GED and a military career, if they so choose.  The program has been in operation for several years and has helped many young people gain their footing in society and thus become productive citizens.  Many have had successful military careers.

In a couple of weeks Seth will leave for Kingwood, WV, home of the Mountaineer Challenge program, and begin a demanding program to get his GED and early entry into the Navy.  Sue and I want to wish him all the luck in the world and hope that he will occasionally stop by to keep us informed of his journey through life.  The mountain in front of him is very steep and there are many hidden obstacles lurking in the bushes, but with determination, Seth will make it.  A special word of gratitude goes out to his aunt and uncle who given him the chance he needed to leave his past behind and strike out in a new direction.

A Christmas story revisited

Last year, about this time, we were visited by a traveler by the name of Nao from the country of Japan.  It was a very enjoyable visit and I felt I needed to write a short story . Shortly after writing it a friend commented that it was a great Christmas story.  I thought for a moment and said yes, I guess it is.  Like all Christmas stories I felt that this one merited retelling so here it is and I hope all my friends have a great Christmas and a fantastic New Year!

After Nao returned to Japan, his country suffered a massive earthquake and tsunami which Nao and his family survived with minimal damage.  From his last message he is anxious to hit the road again and explore another part of our planet.

Naotaka Maehara arriving in Augusta

The other day my friend Steve Bailes called me up to ask if I would be interested in housing a young man from Japan for the evening.  He is riding his bike across America, having left from Vancouver 70 days ago.  He was coming from Clarksburg and would arrive on Saturday if things worked out. I agreed, and contacted Nao (pronounced NOW which is short for Naotaka Maehara) by email to invited him to stay with us for the evening. He replied that he would like to stay with us Saturday evening.  The next two days were interesting as I stayed in contact as much as possible via e-mail. If you remember, this past Wednesday and Thursday we experienced our first major snow fall of the season so Nao was right in the middle of it with the continental divide directly in front of him. To make a long, involved story shorter, he made it across the mountains to our home by 4pm on Saturday.  I quickly suggested he take a bath to get warm. He agreed and headed for the bathroom.  About an hour later he emerged, hungry, relaxed and anxious to get to know us.  Steve had asked if he could come over and meet Nao so I suggested that we do dinner ; at about 6pm Steve and Terry arrived.  It was one of those magical evenings that happen so rarely. We talked, exchanged stories and ate until we were ready to pop.  Nao turned out to be charming, pleasant and a very gracious guest.  I will remember the evening for a long time.  With my fading memory that could be months from now.   After dinner, us guys went down stairs to give Nao’s bike some tender loving care, which it needed badly. We reattached the front racks, cleaned and oiled the chain, pumped up the tires, and gave it a quick inspection.  Later Nao and I went upstairs to spend almost two hours planning his route to New York City. He was ready for his journey to continue in the morning. After I went to bed, Sue stayed up until midnight talking with Nao about who knows what.

Resting after dinner

Relaxing after dinner

The morning came; Nao had several bowls of cereal and began to ready himself and his bike for his journey to New York City where he was scheduled to arrive on December 23. We created a Skype connection so that he could contact us with his computer, if needed.  Shortly thereafter, Nao headed down the driveway.

After Nao had left, we found a note in his bedroom.  In the note was a twenty-dollar bill.  At first I considered getting in the car and catching him to give back the money but after reading the note I decided not to.  This is written in Nao’s own words.  He has only been learning English for three years. I’m impressed!

“I met woman in that time. (before he met us)                                                              She listened my serious talking and gave this $20 to me. She gave money and I received money.  And also I received her kindness.  She said, “I can’t help you now, but use this money and stay in hotel. I want you guys receive this $20.  I mean it is not a staying fee, it means a woman’s kindness.”

I will keep this twenty and pass it forward when the time comes. Experiences like this one only intensify my belief that life is about the people you meet and the memories  you take from those meeting.  My only hope is that someday I will get to see Nao again!

Does Captain Kirk know his times-tables?



I am a Trekkie, which means that I have watched Star Trek since the beginning and probably watched every episode numerous times.  I enjoy Star Trek because it paints a picture of a world in the future where people respect one another and greed is almost non-existent.  It was a great show and prompted many social science research papers by doctoral candidates.

I woke up early this morning with an important question and so went to my computer to bring it to the attention of my readers.  Did captain Kirk know his times-tables?  At first glimpse this may seem like a dumb question, but with a little thought it blossoms into a very interesting query.  Captain Kirk had access to amazing technology, much of which has come to fruition in our time.  He could talk to his computer, which we can also do.  He never had to write or take notes, just scribbled his initials on some report that was handed to him.  Although he professed to read, he did not have to, since anything he wanted could be spoken to him by computer in a pleasing and sometimes sexy voice. I wonder how good his math skills were since he never had to use them much past the conceptual stage.  One has to wonder if the captain knew his times-tables, or did he simply rely on the computer or a small calculator that he probably carried with him to help him through these calculations?

As you may know, I taught Mathematics for much of my teaching career and during that time watched as students knew less and less mathematics. Certainly everyone has his story of how he learned the times tables while attending grade school, but I would raise the question as to whether recent generations will have similar stories.  Like many decisions made in modern education, educational authorities, whoever that might be at the moment, have decided that knowing ones simple times’ tables is not a worthwhile skill in our modern technological society.  Add this to the recent push to eliminate hand writing, and the future looks a little grim.  Sure, some of you will say that Cosmic is stuck in the past, and I am sure there is some truth to that; but I make this simple question, can a strong house be built without a foundation?  Many people like to spout off that Einstein failed eighth grade math.  This may be true, but I bet it was not because he did not know his times tables.  I would wager as well that he was able to pick up a pen and write a note.

I would like to point out that historically, very few human beliefs that were not based on good science survived the test of time.  For example, Earth is not flat nor do planets circle the earth.  It was long believed that taking blood from a sick person made him get better.  Eating wheat and corn, which we use to fatten up our livestock, will make a person thin – and the list goes on.  I believe education has suffered from the same effect.  My generation and several before it benefited from more than a decent education.  Most of us can write, read, add two numbers in our head and know the multiplication tables.  The same cannot be said of students graduating today!  I believe that if we gave a graduating class a ninth grade level test as a gateway to receiving a high school diploma, a very high percentage of seniors, nation wide, would not graduate!

So maybe everything that we have decided is good for education is not!  Maybe teaching six-year olds how to use a computer before they can write their name or use a calculator before they can do simple math is not what is best for our children.  Maybe this huge push to put a computer in the hands of every student will, in the near future, turn out to be a BIG mistake. It is possible that we might decide that building a good foundation is better than skipping to the fun stuff.  Please do not misunderstand me, I LOVE MY COMPUTER. As a comparison, if as a child I was given a Honda four-wheeler before I was given a pedal bike, I doubt that I would be riding a pedal bike today and probably would be a few more pounds over weight.


Testing in our public schools

I did not write this but I think it is important enough post!

It is hard to not say, “I TOLD YOU SO!!”

Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 12/05/2011

When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids

This was written by Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.


By Marion Brady

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America did something that few public servants are willing to do. He took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.

By any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.

He called me the morning he took the test to say he was sure he hadn’t done well, but had to wait for the results. A couple of days ago, realizing that local school board members don’t seem to be playing much of a role in the current “reform” brouhaha, I asked him what he now thought about the tests he’d taken.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

Here’s the clincher in what he wrote:

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

“It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?”

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

There you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

Those decisions are shaped not by knowledge or understanding of educating, but by ideology, politics, hubris, greed, ignorance, the conventional wisdom, and various combinations thereof. And then they’re sold to the public by the rich and powerful.

All that without so much as a pilot program to see if their simplistic, worn-out ideas work, and without a single procedure in place that imposes on them what they demand of teachers: accountability.

But maybe there’s hope. As I write, a New York Times story by Michael Winerip makes my day. The stupidity of the current test-based thrust of reform has triggered the first revolt of school principals.

Winerip writes: “As of last night, 658 principals around the state (New York) had signed a letter — 488 of them from Long Island, where the insurrection began — protesting the use of students’ test scores to evaluate teachers’ and principals’ performance.”

One of those school principals, Winerip says, is Bernard Kaplan. Kaplan runs one of the highest-achieving schools in the state, but is required to attend 10 training sessions.

“It’s education by humiliation,” Kaplan said. “I’ve never seen teachers and principals so degraded.”

Carol Burris, named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, has to attend those 10 training sessions.

Katie Zahedi, another principal, said the session she attended was “two days of total nonsense. I have a Ph.D., I’m in a school every day, and some consultant is supposed to be teaching me to do evaluations.”

A fourth principal, Mario Fernandez, called the evaluation process a product of “ludicrous, shallow thinking. They’re expecting a tornado to go through a junkyard and have a brand new Mercedes pop up.”

My school board member-friend concluded his email with this: “I can’t escape the conclusion that those of us who are expected to follow through on decisions that have been made for us are doing something ethically questionable.”

He’s wrong. What they’re being made to do isn’t ethically questionable. It’s ethically unacceptable. Ethically reprehensible. Ethically indefensible.

How many of the approximately 100,000 school principals in the U.S. would join the revolt if their ethical principles trumped their fears of retribution? Why haven’t they been asked?


Being bruised

I enjoy answers that are not too complicated, answers that most people can understand.  One such answer is from the question, “What makes us grow up?”  The answer is bruises.  With my own children, when they were young, any time I could allow them to suffer a little pain that might help them avoid more serious pain or injury, I monitored the event and allowed them to experience a little negative feedback.  For instance, we had a fire-place insert in our living room.  Whenever one of my children was learning to explore and became more mobile, the first thing that interested them was the fireplace.  What a spectacular display of colors and lights!  How could anything that great looking possibly be painful?  It was my task to allow them to experience the heat without suffering serious effects.  For some children this might simply involve a walk-by and the intensity of the heat would be deterrent enough.  For other children this was an invitation to something wondrous.  In this case, monitoring became more intensive, and because of the persistent nature of my children, eventually an encounter with the fireplace.  Once they managed to touch the stove and get a small burn they knew forever that the stove was dangerous and to be avoided at all cost.

Occasionally our children would wander off in a mall.  My approach was to follow them as they explored, keeping just out of sight and letting them wander about for a time.  Once they realized that they were lost and became frightened, I approached as if nothing was wrong and asked them what they were crying for.  They would reply that they could not find us.  I would explain that, that is why we wanted them to stay close so that they did not get lost.  I see parents who put their children on leases and walk them like animals!  This is because they are too busy worrying about their own problems rather than allowing the child to explore in a safe manner.

I believe today’s society has decided that no one should experience negative reinforcement.  The talking heads in our society have convinced us that good self-esteem comes from parents and teachers constantly telling the children they are doing well.  THIS IS NOT TRUE and is shown to be such by the ongoing deterioration of our society and school systems which believe everyone should get an “A.”  We are a competitive species, which is why we survived and many of our evolutionary cousins did not.  If we are in a situation that does not create a little tension we get bored!  Think about our history; we are consummate explorers.  At no time in our history were we happy with where we were.  We first left a continent, then crossed oceans, climbed every mountain, and now we are reaching for the planets.  When we do these dangerous things, people get hurt and some die.  The tremendous pain we felt as a culture when the Challenger exploded as it made its way towards space is a good example of our determination to explore the unknown.  Everyone at NASA knew there was the potential for catastrophe with every launch and prayed that it would never happen.  When it did happen, they bowed their heads and grieved for the astronauts and their families, but after a time of comprehensive investigation into the reasons for the shuttle failure, we were back at work preparing for another safer launch.  We learn so much from failure!  Failure is not a bad thing.  Sometimes we do our best work while sitting in the sites of failure.

Long time ago when I was a student, my favorite classes were the ones that challenged me.  If I decided that a class was easy and would do little to make me a better person, I lost interest.  When a class challenged me, I took it very personally and worked harder to achieve.   It is helpful to understand that I was not the best student, in any way, shape or form.  My parents were too busy trying to make a living to spend a lot of time reading to or teaching me.  I was pretty much on my own when it came to education.  Sure, they always wanted to see my report card to praise me if I did well or yell at me if I did poorly, but that was the extent of their involvement.  Somehow I learned to read well at an early age so that when I was about 10, my mother bought me a subscription to the ALL ABOUT BOOK SERIES, which sent a book about science every month. This I read over and over until the next one came.  Because of this I became somewhat knowledgeable in many areas of science.

Because of my background, I experienced much bruising as I grew up.  I learned about failing when I did not make a ball team, when my grade were low and things did not go as I wanted them to go.  In short I learned the consequences of not applying my self-sufficiently.  I became a better, stronger person because I experienced failure; no one kept me from its clutches.

So much in our world is designed to eliminate failure.  Very few of our children are allowed to fail.  To fire incompetent employees is next to impossible.  Teacher are encouraged to not fail students or to give low grades.  Swimming is discouraged unless there is a life guard.   Many activities are not allowed unless the absolute maximum safe guards have been taken.  Many of these restrictions are good for people, but there has to be a limit.  Europeans I have met are amused at our propensity to ensure our safety!  Failure is part of life.  It is what helps us find our way.  A society that has eliminated the possibility of failure is a society with its head in the sand, drifting towards a time when many will long to experience failure simply out of intolerable boredom.

Thank you world for my bruises!