To justify their campaign, ed reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty.
ProVoc is free software for OS X. If you have a Mac and you need or want to memorize things, I recommend it. It is, basically, smart flashcards, and it is very customizable: quiz yourself from either “side” of the card, make it multiple choice or not, change the number of choices, make a delay before the choices appear, and so on. It will keep track of which cards you consistently get right and which you consistently get wrong, and you can adjust your studies accordingly. It will keep shuffling the cards you get wrong back into the pile until you get them right some given number of times. It’s really excellent. And it will let you print paper flashcards if you really want to.
I stopped bothering with paper flashcards altogether when I discovered iVocabulary for the iPhone. It replicates all of the major functionality of ProVoc in an iPhone app, and it can take all of your data directly from ProVoc. All your flashcards, all the time, in your pocket. Have a minute in line or in a waiting room? Quiz yourself real quick. It’s currently $5.99 on the App Store, and it’s a steal.
And in case anybody out there wants to use my Sanskrit materials:
The following files are viewable with ProVoc or iVocabulary, and they follow the order of introduction in Beginning Sanskrit: A Practical Course Based on Graded Reading and Exercises, second edition, by Dermot Killingley.
First, all of the vocabulary, with Sanskrit in Devanagari.
Second, I created a transliterated version (IAST) for use with iVocabulary, since the implementation of Devanagari on the iPhone—which renders the characters beautifully—is just flawed enough to be maddening. I hope Apple fixes it soon. (I also put up a test page to check quickly if a system is making this mistake or not.)
Lastly, I made one just with the Devanagari characters (no words) as a sample, which might be useful to anyone just learning the script.
I do emphatically recommend the software regardless of what you’re studying.
UPDATE: New versions of iOS have fully implemented Devanagari, which is now rendered as it should be. If your iPhone or iPad or iPod Touch is messing up Devanagari, do an OS upgrade through iTunes. I’ll leave the transliterated file here in case anybody has further use of it, but it’s no longer necessary as it was.
I received an email from someone who follows me on Twitter asking my opinion on how parents can best help the teachers of their children, whether through volunteering, helping to secure resources, or what. Since that may be a matter of somewhat broader interest, my response is below.
I’m sure different teachers have different takes on this, but I pretty much always welcome any parent involvement that is not just hostility. Any degree of involvement other than that, in my experience, pays immediate and often profound dividends in at least the performance of that parent’s child.
There are different ways to be involved, and which are best depends on the particular teacher, the particular parent, the particular student, and sometimes the particular school and district. Being known helps. Just dropping in after school and introducing yourself and giving an email address, along with the expression of willingness to do anything else if the teacher ever has any ideas or suggestions. If all my students had parents who did that, my job would be much easier and all of my students would learn a lot more.
As for things like books and classroom resources, that depends a lot on where you are. Sometimes school or district-level policies make things harder for direct donations or non-approved components of curricula, and sometimes it’s pretty much all up to the teacher. Some teachers actually have such a mess of mediocre resources it’s hard to figure out what would be helpful and what wouldn’t, and unsolicited additions just end up sitting on a shelf or in a closet. Donorschoose.org is a great resource for this, and you could ask the teacher if they know of it and if they’ve ever used it, and let them know to tell you if they ever put a project up because you’ll be happy to donate.
Sometimes things like volunteering with after-school clubs or tutoring can be very nice, but sometimes awful, depending on personalities and relevant knowledge and so on—also sometimes districts have difficult policies with this, since having volunteers in contact with kids is a potential liability for them, and they usually require some sort of background check and so on. Being involved with any PTA or similar organization is helpful, too, especially if you make it clear you’re advocating for the teachers.
But with all of these things, it really comes down to the particular teacher and particular parent. So I’d just recommend putting yourself out there— give an introduction, several kinds of contact info (different teachers prefer different kinds), make yourself very easy to get ahold of, and make it clear that you’re up for helping in any way they might want it. Just don’t make it seem like you’re making any demands or expecting them to do any more work than they’re already doing. If they’re super busy and stressed out, they may not ever come up with any way for you to help; but just making yourself available can be nice, and having even that level of relationship will probably benefit your kid(s).
While I’m complaining, I may as well add one more. This feature of classroom teaching is one of the most difficult to manage, and it is another aspect of this profession that I think most people don’t understand. It certainly contributes to the fast burnout of many young idealists, and maybe also to the subtle but pervasive battiness of many old, successful teachers.
Rather than explaining it myself, I’ll quote from Teachers Have It Easy: the big sacrifices and small salaries of America’s teachers (Daniel Moulthrop, Nínive Clements Calegari, Dave Eggers). The rest of the book is mostly like this excerpt: brief testimony from teachers, with chapter introductions and interstitial commentary from the editors.
Julia Normand, 65, English—Goldenview Middle School,
When I was working at a law firm as a computer-support person, my typical day amounted to coming to my desk with a cup of coffee and a roll. I’d sit down and go through messages, drinking my coffee. I’d greet my co-workers when they came in; I’d make a phone call to set up a meeting and plan my day. If I had to go to the bathroom, I just got up and went. I was in charge of my own body, my own life, and my own schedule. I had certain things to get done, and if it took longer than a day, I got paid overtime for it. It was a high-pressure job in many ways, but not in terms of having thirty people needing your attention immediately and knowing that legally, I’m required to be in the room. As a teacher, if I step out of the room to go to the bathroom and something happens, legally, I’m responsible.
It’s just such a different thing. You feel like a person when you’re working at another job, and you don’t feel like a person when you’re teaching. It feels like being a train. Somebody switches it on, and it’s moving and you had better keep running. You don’t have the option to make a personal choice like “I think I’ll put this off until tomorrow.” There are thirty people, and they need things. You go with it all day.
I guess the equivalent might be if thirty people called me at the same time to tell me their computers crashed. But that’s just impossible. The network could go down and thirty people could call, but there’d be five or six of us in the IT department who would go troubleshoot it and one person would man the phones and say to people, “This is probably what we think is happening, it’ll probably be about fifteen minutes, we’ll let you know.” You work at high speed on it, but it’s not thirty people standing over you wanting immediate attention.
Teachers are required by law to stay within their classrooms. They are responsible for anything that happens when a student is in their charge. This is a reasonable requirement, yet because there aren’t reasonable breaks in school schedules, teachers often lack the basic liberties most occupations take for granted.
Few other professionals see thirty or more clients at once, all with different needs, some of whom may be determined to work counter to your goals. The combination of these factors can be stressful, to say the least—especially when there is no possibility, for hours on end, of respite.
I have three potentially full-time jobs. (1) Taking diverse and uneven resources and within the bounds of (a) state frameworks, (b) school- and (c) district-level requirements making a curriculum with daily lessons; (2) using this creation to teach kids every day, and to work with them however they need it, including after-school activities and tutoring; and (3) devising methods for collecting data on their progress, collecting that data, analyzing it, and using it in the performance of (1) and (2).
Most people seem to think that only (2) is the full-time job of teaching, and that (1) and (3) are mere periphery requirements. These people are wrong. I could easily fill a full 40+ hour week doing any one of them, and realistically I spend 20–30+ hours weekly on each, sometimes skimping on one (generally (3), or parts of it) for a week or two and then spending a maddening weekend or taking a sick-day (or both) to catch up.
I would gladly do any one of these jobs—I think I would even enjoy doing any one of them—or alternate between them from semester to semester or year to year. Ideally, if I were doing only one of them and two others were doing the other two, we would work in very close collaboration.
But giving each of the three the attention it ought to get is difficult-bordering-on-impossible, and this is one of the reasons I will not be able to keep doing this job forever.