Coffee With Control of Your Educational Destiny

Would we have Coffee With Sophia Stevens?

Cammy:  Well, maybe not coffee, since we’re talking about an 8th grader (and in 8th grade, my mother was still telling me coffee would stunt my growth…), but tea, soda, ice-cream–whatever works.  And yes, her parents can come along because I don’t want to be creepy (and because I want to give them kuddos for having an impressive daughter).  Any which way you cut it,  I want to give this young woman a high five, buy her some manner of beverage or snack, and assure her that she is not alone in her feelings about standardized tests.

When I came across this article on the Washington Post site Eighth grader designs standardized test that slams standardized tests, I scrambled to click through and read it.  I have zero use for standardized testing in schools, due in large part to the experiences I had with them during my own school years.  And from this article, it’s clear that Sophia Stevens is in the same boat.  She’s a good student, a good test taker–but she’s got no use for the system standardized testing imposes on kids.

And she’s right.

She uses the format of a standard “reading passage” section to convey her concerns about the wasted educational opportunities, the lack of accurate measure of success and the undue stress it puts on teachers and students alike.  My form of protest was not so witty (to prep for the writing section we were told to find a topic and write a persuasive essay–I wrote a persuasive essay about how prepping for these tests was a waste of my educational time), so I give extra props to Miss Stevens for turning the format on itself.  It’s inspired.  As one standardized testing hater to another, I’d like to ask her how long she’s felt this way.  What made her realize this whole mess was a problem?  Is she angry, or just annoyed?  Are there topics in particular that she feels are missed because of the focus on these exams?

While the sad truth is that The Powers That Be are no more likely to take Sophia’s creatively-expressed concerns any more to heart than the administrators at my school did my essay, I want to encourage her to keep saying it.  She is far from alone. And if the bureaucracy of education would fire a few synapses, they would listen to students like Sophia who are smart enough to pass these stupid tests and to point out what what a waste those tests are. It may be futile, but let the record show, that one bright girl tried to point out the stupidity of it all.


Kristy: Absolutely (and as someone who was drinking coffee in the 8th grade, if she wants a cup, I’ll totally buy it for her). I was told not all that long ago by a family member that the only reason I don’t support standardized tests is because I don’t care about kids. Yes. He was absolutely correct. I don’t care about kids. That’s why I spent two years teaching them for less than minimum wage and no health insurance. Because I just don’t care.

No wait… that’s not it… I oppose standardized tests because I’m the person who has to deal with these kids when they get out of high school still lacking basic skills like analytical thinking, creating a thesis statement, and putting together grammatically correct sentences. This determination that everything must be quantified on a standard scale is creating a generation of poorly programmed robots. An ad running in Indiana right now announces that one in three high school graduates in the state has to take remedial courses in college. It doesn’t mention the fact that where I teach, one of the largest universities in the state, students that should be in remedial classes don’t wind up taking them because the classes are overflowing.

I really applaud Sophia not just for realizing what crap these tests are but for coming up with such an ingenious, creative way to critique them. While we’re on the subject of creativity, I especially love that she points out the lack of creative thinking that results from test taking. I’m honestly not sure our society values creative thinking, which is upsetting. Not only is creative thinking at the core of the arts (and no matter what those who hold the purse strings in academia will tell you, the arts ARE important), I have it on good authority it’s an essential skill to progress beyond drudge level in the hard sciences. But yeah… why should we bother encouraging that in our society. I’m sure we have all the art and science we need.

For the record, I’m fairly awesome at test taking myself. I’m someone who works best under pressure and my brain just gets the system at work behind those suckers. You want proof standardized tests are a joke? I scored in the 95th percentile on the math portion of the GRE. And I barely passed high school math.

So yes, Sophia, you deserve a tasty treat of your choice on It’s My TV, It’s My Peanut Butter’s dime (by which I mean Cammy’s dime, because I’ve been too busy not caring about young people to earn a dime).

Heliocentric Coffee

Would we drink coffee with Nicolaus Copernicus?

Kristy: Sure. I mean the nice thing about those Renaissance Men was that they knew a little about everything, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something to talk about. The bad thing about those Renaissance Men, of course, was that they knew a little about everything, so I will no doubt leave feeling like a colossal idiot. But hey, grad school as me well acquainted with that sensation. I’m going to do my best to skip the hard science discussion and ask him about two things I find much more interesting: education and national identity. Yes, I realize the man revolutionized science, and that’s important, but I also think that makes it that much more interesting to know what he thinks of our current educational models. Does he applaud the trends toward specialization or wish people were forced to be more well-rounded? And yes, I’m very curious to know what he considered himself: Polish? Prussian? German? Silesian? Do any of these terms mean anything at all to him? Yes, I know it’s no more relevant to him than it was to thousands of people of his generation, but I’m not having coffee with them. I’m having coffee with him, and while were there I’d like some insight into identity perceptions is fifteenth-century Poland.

Cammy:  Coffee with Copernicus?  To quote Gus from Psych, “You know that’s right!”  Of course I want to have coffee with him.  He’s a lawyer, he’s a scientist, no one knows what flavor of European to truly call him–he’s like my really poorly timed and incredibly funny lookin’ soul mate.  A huge part of my family comes with that same troublesome cultural classification issue (Prussian?  Polish?  German?  Silesian?  Just confused?), so maybe his insight into where he puts himself could help with putting my only family tree into the right buckets.  I’m not so scared of the hard science discussion, but I am more interested in some of what Kristy wants to talk to him about, particularly the specialization vs. seeking broad-based knowledge.  I’m guessing he’d have some choice comments to make about how we’ve divided up subject matter and, in some cases, pitted them against one another (art and science mutually exclusive?  Not for him!).  At least with him, we’re not going to be limited on topics.

Remedial Civics?

With the new term of my favorite branch of the federal government starting up on the traditional “First Monday” in October, I started thinking of a few court-related topics I could share, specific cases worth explanation, etc.

Unfortunately, as I test-drove a few ideas through subtle conversation with colleagues at lunch, I realized that some key points seemed to be missing from my co-workers knowledge of, well, government.  This led me to start wondering about what we really teach about government and civics to school kids.  I took a gander at the curriculum break-down and exam percentage for AP Government and Politics, and I was shocked to see how much focuses on the politics vs. the government.  It’s no wonder people feel like only lawyers can understand the court when even an AP course clearly isn’t giving much love to the third branch.  Honestly, I’m not completely convinced they’re really giving the right kind of love to the other two branches either.

I know Sandra Day O’Connor has spoken about the failings of government and civics education across the country, and she helped found to provide resources to address this gap. But how bad is it?  Do people understand the difference between a law and a regulation?  Do people really understand the difference between an appeals court and a trial court?  What a common law system means?  What really happens when a case makes it to the Supreme Court?  Or how cases make it there?  If I say “stare decisis” will they give me a blank look?

I’m more than a little afraid that the answer to most of those questions is pretty negative.  Which leaves me with another question:  am I being overly lawyer-y in my concern that a large portion of the population may not “get” this?


Coffee With a Bluestocking

Would we have coffee with…Elizabeth Carter?

Cammy:  Okay, so, I’ll admit that until toda,y the only Elizabeth Carter I knew was a girl a few years ahead of me in high school.  But, in combing through Wikipedia to see who of interest has a birthday this week, I ran across Carter and her buddies in a group known as the Bluestockings…and, yes, I totally want to have coffee with her.  In the absence of higher education (or much of any education of substance) for women in the 18th century, Elizabeth was a polyglot, mastering multiple languages, including Ancient Greek.  She translated, wrote and apparently, could make a decent pudding and sew, to boot.  She and the rest of the Bluestockings would get together, share ideas, hear lectures and generally improve their minds, which, for the time, made them a pretty bad-ass group of gals.  So, what would Elizabeth (once touted as the most learned woman in England) have to say about where we are in education now?  Would she see more value in the presence of women in the lecture hall….or in our conversations in dorm hallways (at least the kind of conversations that happened in the dorm hallways where Kristy and I lived)?  How about the drop of in studying the Classics?  Is there a need for a modern day Bluestocking movement?Kristy:  Oh heck yes!  I didn’t know any more about her than Cammy until tonight, but yes, she sounds like someone it would be fascinating to have coffee with.  Like Cammy I’m interested to hear what she has to say about education, in particular women’s education, at the present day.  I’m also interested in the comments about her ability to excel at typical “womanly” activities such as cooking and embroidery as well as the spheres which were dominated by men in her day such as translation and science.  I personally appreciate this since I like to think my enjoyment of cooking and crocheting doesn’t hinder my ability to be a feminist/post-modern woman.  But I have to wonder whether she cooked and sewed because she enjoyed them, or because they were essential skills for ladies of her day?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Playing the Trump Card

Before I go any further let me own up to something:  I am sure at some point in time or another I have committed the crime I am about to vent about.  I can’t remember doing it, but I can totally see myself doing it.  So yeah… I’m being a hypocrite but whatev… at least I own it.

When I used to teach college composition courses we used to study a Sojourner Truth speech.  I think it was called “Ain’t I a woman.”  I used it as an example of an effective argument.  In it she points out that Jesus was the creation of God and a woman—that man had nothing to do with it.  My students usually recognized the technique she was using; I like to call it “Playing the Trump card.”  Essentially she was saying “God believes in women’s rights.”  In nineteenth century America where if you didn’t believe in God you certainly didn’t admit it in public, such an argument was tough to counter.  While I totally agree with Sojourner on the whole women’s equality thing, I also recognize it as a dick move.

My problem with Trump cards is that as in that instance they are rarely valid arguments.  They are simply a move which puts your opponent into a position where if they continue arguing they look like an asshole.

My Dad likes to play it.  In his case the Trump Card is the fact that he was a veteran of the US Air Force.  Now this is not to in anyway trivialize that because our service men and women deserve our utmost respect.  And to do what he did requires a degree of patriotism I will probably never fully comprehend.  But not so long ago we were arguing about the “Pledge of Allegiance.”  I have a problem with the fact that Congress edited someone’s work without permission of his estate.  I have a special problem with the way they edited it.  My father disagrees.  He ends our argument with something along the lines of, “Having worn the uniform I understand it in a way you never can.”  If I had continued to argue I would have sounded like I was disrespecting his military service, which I had no desire to do.  But honestly… no, his military service does not give him special understanding of the intellectual property issues at stake or the value of separating church and state.  But Trump Card played, game over.

My brother played it last week.  We were arguing about the value of standardized testing in our schools.  I think that it’s ultimately harmful to students, he disagrees.  In the midst of a heated argument about everything wrong with our education system he pops out with, “You don’t understand.  You’re not a parent.” No.  I’m not a parent.  I’m just the person who has to teach these kids after they graduate from high school without learning how to write an essay.  And I nearly argued as such.  But everyone else present nodded in recognition of his special insight and I was stuck.  Had I continued to argue I would have been trivializing parenting.  Trump Card played, game over.

So anyway, Trump Cards are convenient, and fun to play, but keep in mind, doing so makes you an asshole.