Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Power of Communication

Thirty years ago now, an 18-month old toddler slipped down a well, and the world stopped breathing. The media got wind of the story and suddenly her vanishing became the headline on television news, in newspapers, on radio talk shows, and at the water coolers everywhere.
As John Donne once said, “No man is an island,” and when one of us, in this case, a little girl, becomes isolated as an island, no one remains comfortable.
And no one was. Not, that is, until someone slid a microphone down the well to where she was. She was singing.
And the whole would collectively exhaled.

So long as we can communicate, we can have faith in the future.

Now, here’s a story from closer to home: My father and I were the best of friends, but separated by a single circumstance. Divorced from my mother, he married a thin-skinned woman who detested the members of his prior family, which included my mother, myself, and three grown sisters. He stayed in that second marriage because they had produced a girl child, my fourth sister, on whom he expended all the love and attention he lost the chance to expend on us. (Side note: none of us felt a twitch of jealousy. We loved her too.)
But the Bruja he married threw log after log in the way of me and my sisters spending time with him. He had to fight for it. (Another side note: The Bruja wasn’t that successful. My father had an iron will, so she resorted to more subtle disruptions. We managed, and, like I said, he became my best friend.)
And so it went for two decades.

Then, when I was thirty, the unthinkable happened: always a man with an iron will and an iron constitution, my father fell ill. He never fell ill. But it was cancer, terminal cancer. On the very day America began involvement with the Iraqi-Kuwaiti war, he was taken to the hospital. I had a small publishing business in those days, so my time was my own, and I rushed up to the hospital. The man was conversant, clear-minded, and accepting that he was in his final days. All my sisters and one of his stepsons (the other was away in that war) came to the hospital. More frequently than felt natural, his wife was absent. Fine with us. I for one didn’t miss her company.
Finally, he was allowed to go home, where he lived alone with his wife. The daughter he loved had married, moved out, and had children of her own by then. I was allowed to visit him once, and that visit had major consequences on the next few weeks. My dad and I sat at his kitchen table and talked of his eldest step-son, a Special Forces Army man. Because of his role in the battles, the son was completely incommunicado. We were used to his disappearances. One of the things Dad and I talked about was how, back when the US went after Noriega, my step-brother had been at the dictator’s compound setting up communications a week before the first planes arrived.
Needless to say, my former Master Sergeant in the Army father was fully proud of that step-son. (Another side note: I was Vietnam-era age, and Dad so hated the war he said he would drive me to Canada if I got drafted. He had his principles.)
That night, my father and the Bruja began arguing. I learned from my youngest sister years later that it was over my “frequent” visits and my detestable cowardice. You see, her son signed up for service, and his son had gone to college instead. Told you she was more subtle in her assaults. Anyway, the fight began soon after I left, and continued into the wee hours. According to my sister, my father, having no more strength left, managed to call her on the phone to ask if she’d come over to intervene. She said that he cried on the phone, saying, “She’s killing me.”
When my sister arrived at three a.m., she found my dad collapsed half-way up the stairs to their room, alone, her in bed, and him already debilitated by a paralyzing stroke.
He died from that stroke, but not until after another three week stay in the hospital. I tried to visit, but was told by admittance and then by security that under no circumstance was I to be allowed. Orders of the Bruja. All my sisters were permitted, which was a good thing, because I got news, and because we learned something about my dad. He knew sign-language, and with the use of a manual, my sisters and he could communicate. They, and even myself, got to cling to a shred of hope that a better future was at least possible.

Flashback: When I was seven, my father and I lived in southern California up in the mountains. One day the jeep he used ran out of gas. So we had to walk about a mile into a small town. It was hot, dusty, and dry, and my Dad had the unfortunate task of keeping a seven-year old entertained. I had a million questions, and to limit them them he asked me to spell certain words. Whether I succeeded or not is irrelevant. What is relevant was that I got to ask him to spell a word, and I chose one popular those days: “Dad, how do you spell 'Antidisestablishmentarianism'?” I am sure he dismissed me with a wave of his hand and changed the subject with, “Look, a lizard.”
Back to him in his hotel room. I got a call from my sister. “Get here now. We can sneak you in. We bribed the front desk, and the witch is home showering.”
I rushed to attend what would be my last hours with my father. We had to sit in the dark, because it was way past visiting hours, and we feared someone ratting me out. I held his hand, and I watched him try to communicate via sign language, but I didn’t know it and had no book. So, to a man who could only grunt and heave an exhaled squeal, I leaned over and asked him, “Dad, do you know how to spell Antidisestablishmentarianism yet?”
Whether he had ever managed anything more than a grunt or squeal since the stroke or not, I never learned. But he did something that affirmed communication had been had. He started laughing. Hard. So, then, did I. And we both had tears in our eyes.
Beyond all possibility, we communicated, and it united us. I learned something again that day, that without communicating we are islands, alone, desolate, uninhabitable by anything other than our own weeds. It is what humans do to be human.

I think that, today, it is worth keeping that in mind.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Lesson not learned get learned

Finally, a topic to restart “On Second Thoughts” that has nothing to do with the recent presidential election: Grade Inflation.” (You see, I promised myself I would not fall into the trap of trying to figure out why Trump won and Clinton lost, or what a future run by the demons and devils that will get swept into power along with Mr. unpredictable, and it took a while since announcing I’d relaunch to come up with something other. Especially since I have been so assaulted with regime change prediction and analysis that it is hard, really hard, to notice anything other. And here I am writing about that very thing. Segue!)

Grade inflation this the award of a higher gradation than has been earned, and is usually caused by one of three things:

1.      Probably the only excusable reason is awarding a student who did not come into a graded course with requisite skills but who worked hard, diligently, and above expectation, but who just missed the mark. Bump him or her up? Okay.
2.      A wholly unacceptable reason is a teacher giving a favorite student a far better grade than earned, and one certainly not deserved. This is ego gratification by the teacher, something that deflates and/or dilutes the efforts of better, hardworking students.
3.      Ugly — but sometimes necessary — grade change arises because a teacher’s success depends on the success of others, namely her students. An administration, perhaps only an administrator, has an expectation that all students must do well in a course to justify allowing the course at all. This is the “Keeping Your Numbers Up” requirement.

Now why, when I have been on record for years been vocally anti-grading, am I talking about this? Same reason I can be anti-snow and still drive through it. It exists, and must be dealt with.

Here’s the specific reason: Lately (like, two weeks ago) I ended a long term temporary teaching assignment for a teacher out on maternity leave. She interviewed me, and subsequently hired me because of my experience in classrooms, my familiarity with the subject, and my history in the profession. I was, in her words, far further in qualification than every other candidate. No brag, just fact. It supports a conclusion: in her classroom I knew what I was doing, and did my best.

Problem was, even when I gave softball assignments (their own form of grade inflation) a larger than expected students simply did not do them. As a consequence, a gross number of students failed, and some failed inalterably. Curiously, those who failed in the highest numbers were the upper lever students, those who had taken and passed levels 1&2. These were, also, the favorites of the teacher (Again, her words.) In all likelihood they resented my being there at all, preferring her romper room style to my much more strict and regulated style of teaching. They say on their hands, and failed.

I grade simply, based on first my dislike of grading, and from a belief that work is its own reward: do the work, get the credit. I am rarely interested in content, which can only be judged using my preferences, and therefore prejudices. I am, however, interested in construction, craft, intent, technique. These can be counted, and being counted they fit into a system that awards points based on Quantity, not Quality. (I think a course whose grades depend on Quality is already prejudiced against those who want to learn. Those who already learned or mastered float naturally to the top, skewing all reasonable grading.) It is easy as pie to get good grades in my classes: just do the work.

Okay, enough background. What prompted my second thought is I recently uncovered that the returning teacher deflated all assignments I had the students do. Her technique for doing so is irrelevant. It is the consequence of her doing so that is relevant. The first consequence is most obvious: those who were her do-nothing and failing favorites now have A grades. Not so obvious, but just as consequential, is that those students who struggle, have little prior learning, but who try darn hard will now be degraded, and will become subject to what amounts to a whimsical evaluative system. They will suffer.

Most consequential, however, is what she has just taught the students: Work has no meaning, only approval and alliance have meaning. This will become quite evident to the students who did more work than necessary, because I award for more than required effort, and who will now go from nearly a 110% grade in a 100%=A course, to less than that 100%. (in all likelihood.)

In business there’s a saying: Those who do get into trouble. Those who don’t do get promoted. If schools are supposed to prepared students to be good citizens, she failed them all, A to F. If schools are supposed to prepare students good entry into a workforce, she succeeded, because of the truth in that aforementioned saying. From my perspective, however, a student prepared to be a good citizen is also prepared to be a good employee or, better, a good employer. But a student only prepared to get ahead by doing nothing is neither prepared to get ahead as an employee or as a good citizen.

Which, unfortunately brings me back to the election, and the promotional politics that got us here. The campaign and election of Donald Trump will flavor everything that can be valued as American. Everything is not an overly stated absolute. He ran on a campaign that said, essentially, “American Workers, you don’t have to do a thing. Like me, want me, stick by me, and I’ll make sure you get what I think that you think you deserve.” (Which, assuredly, is a lie.)

Those who worked hard, and worked hard over the past forty, fifty years, who scrambled, sacrificed, fought, got denied again and again, who were vilified and who had their dignity assaulted, suffering all in order to get what they knew that all deserved, will see all of what had been hard won get washed away, deflated, or diluted to valueless. Just like the lazy ass who now has an A in her romper room class for doing nothing.

Nobody gets what they deserve by doing nothing.