Tuesday, January 17, 2012

To Die For -- a teacher's story

On the first day of school students would wander into my homeroom and sit, some in front and some in back. They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. Some greeted me. Others didn’t. I’d look at each one and if I got eye contact I’d say, “Good morning,” and he or she would respond in kind. By eight o’clock all the buses would had arrived. Announcements would come over the intercom. When the Pledge of Allegiance was over they all sat down I’d walk to the front of the class, fold my arms over my chest and look them over. Everyone would be staring back at me wide-eyed and expectant. I’d scratch my chin, knit my brow, then slowly shake my head saying, “Why? Why do they always give me the ugly ones?”

In shock, their eyes would grow wider. Girls would turn to each other with hands over their open mouths. After a few seconds a boy would laugh - and it was always a boy. Then other boys would laugh. After a few more seconds, they all knew I wasn’t serious. I’d keep my poker face on for another second or two before smiling.

One year, a girl asked, “Why did you do that?”

“When I stand in front of you at the beginning of each class,” I said, “I want you to be quiet and pay attention. You’re more likely to do that now. I also want you to get into the habit of thinking critically about everything you hear. I want you to ask yourself: ‘Is this opinion? Is this fact? What evidence exists? Is there enough evidence to constitute proof?’ Stuff like that.”

After a week went by I’d begin each of my four or five history classes saying: “I have good news and bad news. What do you want first?” Inevitably, they’d want the bad first, so I’d say, “You’re all going to die.”

Some would look surprised. Some had no discernible reaction and others would just smile. Then a student would say, “We know that.”

“Okay, good,” I’d say. “I don’t mean today or tomorrow, but some day.”

“We know.”

“Right. Good. So then it’s only a matter of when and how.”

“What’s the point?”

“Some of us will live a long time and some of us won’t.”

“We know that.”

“It’s one of the very few things we can be certain of,” I’d explain. “It’s good to keep in mind that we’re here for a limited time, not forever, and what we do every day matters.”

“You’re going to die too, Mr. McLaughlin.”

“Yes, and probably before you do,” I’d respond. “So I probably think about it more and give it closer attention than you do. That’s the nature of things. On average, someone my age can expect about twenty more years, more or less, and each day gets more precious with that awareness. Not a bad thing.”

“The good news is that - if the past is any guide - most of you will live longer than your parents, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents,” I’d tell them. Then I’d go on to explain average life expectancies for Americans today, compare them with what they were at other times in history, and with those of people in other places. That would work into how long a generation was and so forth. Teaching 20th century US History, I could say, “This would have been going on when your grandparents were children,” or “around when your great-grandparents were born,” etc. That helped put what might otherwise just be obscure events into perspective.

That’s the way I began my last several years in the classroom. When Veterans’ Day came in November, I’d point out that veterans were willing to give their lives for things they believed more important than themselves - usually the things students said every morning in the Pledge of Allegiance. When Martin Luther King Day came in January, I’d quote King, saying: “If a man has nothing he would die for, he isn’t fit to live.” I’d then ask if there were anything they would die for. Some indicated they would be willing to risk their lives for their families. Upon further questioning, I’d be dismayed to learn that others could think of nothing worth dying for. When Memorial Day weekend loomed, I’d inform them of the meaning of this holiday - honoring those who not only risked their lives, but gave them.

The theme of our limited lifespans presented many opportunities for lessons throughout the school year, including Ben Franklin’s quote about death and taxes, our radical Muslim enemies willing to die in their efforts to kill us, as well as different ideas about the meaning of human life, including the nihilist view - widespread in the late 20th century - that it had no meaning at all. It was a rich mine, and I drew from it often.


Antisemitism at a famously Left-leaning British university

A leading university is embroiled in a race row after a Jewish student was assaulted at a Nazi-themed drinking party. The 21-year-old London School of Economics student was subjected to anti-semitic abuse and left with a broken nose following a brawl during a ski trip to Val d’Isere, France.

An investigation has been mounted by the university and its student union after a video of the assault was taken and students provided witness statements.

The victim, who does not wish to be identified, had excused himself from taking part in the Nazi elements of the game, but became increasingly offended at remarks hurled at him by some students. A heated confrontation then turned into a brawl.

The alcohol-fuelled game, initiated by a small group of the union’s ski society, was called Ring Of Fire. Playing cards were arranged in a swastika shape and students urged to drink a shot of spirits and carry out forfeits depending on which card they picked out.

The rule card for the game made students stand up and say ‘Mein Fuhrer’ while making a Nazi salute if they picked out the joker card before drinking.

Another forfeit included the words ‘blitzkrieg’, the German lightning war that devastated much of Europe during the Second World War.

A video, which has been viewed by university officials, shows a man being attacked while a crowd chant ‘fight night, fight night’.

The student was urged to report the incident to French police, but instead complained to the LSE’s Jewish Society, after which it was referred to university bosses. In a statement released yesterday, he said: ‘I’ve seen this kind of game before, so it wasn’t so much the game that offended me, as much as the anti-semitic jibes that went with it. ‘There was a mix of personal references and general Jewish insults.

'That was after I excused myself from the game. It made me extremely upset. That was the tipping point for me.

'It was a build-up during the game, and seeing the swastika obviously, but the comments built up to the point where I couldn’t forgive myself if I let it slide. ‘I feel angry about it now. 'There’s no doubt it was an affront to my identity, but on a personal level it was extremely upsetting.’

The trip to the resort was subsidised by the university and cost the 150 students only £329 each for a week in the resort from December 9 to 17 last year.

An LSE and student union statement said: ‘We are prepared to take disciplinary action if the allegations are shown to be true. ‘Students must abide by clear standards of behaviour set by both LSE and the SU and breaches of those standards are taken very seriously. 'We do not tolerate anti-semitism or any other form of racism.’


Putting a dollar value on having top teachers

GOOD teachers can influence the earning power, teenage pregnancy rates and university enrolments of their students.

These are the findings of a controversial US study, which followed 2.5 million students over 20 years.

The study, by economists from Harvard and Columbia universities, used scores from standardised tests - the US equivalent of Australian NAPLAN testing - to assess teacher quality.
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It has not been peer reviewed but its results have sparked debate between teachers and parents over the benefits of merit-based pay for teachers, one of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's 2010 election promises.

The study found "excellent" teachers can increase a student's lifetime income by about $4600, compared with students of a similar demographic. Across an entire classroom, that could equate to $266,000.

Students who had the best teachers were also least likely to become pregnant in their teens, the study found.

But the majority of Australian teachers argue that using NAPLAN results to measure teacher quality does not take into account other factors such as student backgrounds.

"It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to isolate teachers in that way," the president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Bob Lipscombe, said. "A typical high school student has seven or eight teachers each year - which teacher takes credit for the results?

"More goes into making an excellent teacher than just test results."

But the president of the NSW Parents and Citizens Association, Helen Walton, said the study's findings could empower parents who are concerned their child's teacher is not performing well.

"You need quality teachers in every classroom, in front of every child," she said. "At the moment, if a parent or a group of parents are concerned that a teacher is not performing, the process required to put that teacher through an improvement program can take up to 12 months. By that time, it's too late."

The Federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, said the government was working towards giving schools greater say on recruitment. However, he stopped short of endorsing the study.


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