Search This Blog

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Justice And Good Governance?

There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm (Epicurus, ancient Greek philosopher)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Very Special Kids

About 10% of students suffer from what we call in education Learning Disability (LD), a puzzling but detectable brain malfunction that makes it very difficult for kids to process academic information. It is often confused with low I.Q. unfortunately as most students enjoy a normal level of intelligence. Another more "popular" disability is dyslexia, which is strictly related to reading as students do not perceive letters and words "normally". Parents of such children should pay close attention to these diagnoses obtained through a series of verbal and non-verbal tests. They should ask to see the detailed results and if they note something amiss, they must request a re-test by a different agency. That is their right, at least in public education schools.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Broken Elections

we the people of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

"We the people" cannot be confused with "they...the Congress." However, If we really want to split hairs, we elected them and they are therefore the legitimate representatives of "the people." This is what lawyers do, they split hairs and get paid handsomely. But since I am not certified to work as a lawyer, let me use instead another concept that cannot be split; it either exists or it doesn't: Common Sense.

Monday, December 26, 2011

I'm Entitled..Or Maybe Not

Today's teens have a sense of entitlement that did not exist in prior generations. Maybe the cause can be found in the fact that both parents work; they are too tired in the evening to put up a fight or follow proper parenting procedures and to quiet the brats they simply cave in to their demands. Another possible reason is the ubiquitous TV set and fare; it gives them instant gratification scenes four hours a day, the average time a child spends in front of the "idiot" box. Or maybe our modern society as a whole has become "entitlement crazy."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Parents Beware!!

I really don't understand!! How could so many victims fall prey to that monster for so many years without one parent noticing something? Children are not professional poker players; they cannot hide their emotions, especially when they have been abused. I am talking, of course, of the tragic events at Penn State where a conspiracy of silence took place during approximately 15 years, from the president to the head coach. They should all be co-defendants, since they became accomplices by not calling the cops.

Why Not?

The real puzzler however is the fact that not one single parent came forward to denounce the pedophile; if several boys aged 8 to 12 were abused, surely one mother or father must have discovered the tremendous emotional change in their children. The real question is: Did they and if so, why remain silent? Public shame is one explanation, not convincing at all, because they allowed other boys to be sexually assaulted. The famous and destructive attitude held by so many families of "what will people think" has caused so much harm that it should be the main topic for family counselors.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Communicate With Teens??

What to do with these "strange" teenagers? They may be your children, the friends of your children, or your students; in any case, YOU have to deal with them. They have their own jargon, often so obscure that the best cryptographers are still trying to decipher it (LOL). If you don't understand LOL, you clearly have problems with teens. Same thing with the word "bad" which has a totally different meaning than the one we, the adults, the old ones, use. If you can understand the following, then you are cool: whitgrl24:omg y u bi disin n mi?  If you can't, welcome to the club!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our Declining Values

What do we, citizens of the modern world, consider more important? Do we go by what the media tell or show us, or are we able to form our own judgment?  Is the life of any celebrity and their sordid adventures, i.e. Paris Hilton, so fascinating that we immediately focus on the Hollywood show? Is Lindsay Lohan's fall from grace and what the judge said to her "How well she is behaving during her probation" so earth-shaking that millions of viewers will hit YouTube? What does such behavior say about our society?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good Marriage, Good Family..Under Fire

''A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.''  By Mignon McLaughlin

A good marriage usually ends up with a good family; barring mental illness o extreme circumstances, a happy, harmonious couple will produce happy, well-balanced, tolerant, sociable, and successful children. Judging by what happens nowadays in our society, people apparently get married to the wrong person. Actual weddings are less and less frequent and living together is more and more common. Divorces are up, and emotionally unstable children seem to grow in numbers, a fact that taxes our public and private schools. In short, marriage is no longer taken as seriously as it was 40 years ago. The reasons? There are many, but the key seems to be a generalized loss of social, ethical, and family values.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

America's Influence in the World

During the Cold War, America influenced 1/4 of the world and communism the other 1/4. The rest were, as they called themselves, non-aligned, pretending to be neutral.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Speculating Fever

In a word, the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country, had raged to an alarming degree, and every body was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing. As usual the fever had subsided; the dream had gone off, and the imaginary fortunes with it; the patients were left in doleful plight, and the whole country resounded with the consequent cry of "hard times."

The Devil and Tom Walker (Washington Irving) 1824

Did Washington Irving foreshadow our present financial ills and plight? Or was he simply an astute observer of human frailty? There is no doubt that "the fever has subsided." We are swimming in debt, we are at the mercy of heartless lenders, we are manifesting our anger in the crowded streets, we are losing our homes, our dignity, our hope, our jobs, and our faith in our rulers.  Tom Walker is probably the best representative of all the corrupt brokers, greedy bankers, and incompetent politicians. Did they, as he did, sign a pact with the Devil in exchange for untold riches, at whatever the cost and at whatever the suffering they might cause?

"The great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then" says Irving. We want something for nothing; we believe the promises of an El Dorado by investing in shady instruments; we give in to the demon of greed present in every human soul and heart... and we pay the price. So yes, we are in part guilty of listening to the false prophets, of wanting wealth without working hard at it. What did the financial crisis of the last 3 years say about us? Will we learn from the bitter experience? Or, as Irving emphasizes, will the speculation fever reappear? Soon?

Wall Street has often been compared to a giant casino, except that in Vegas you already know that you are there to lose and have fun, while investing in hedge funds and the like is much more of a gamble; we, the small fish in the financial pond, are an appetizing dish for those who speculate and thus manipulate the ups and downs of the market. Financial gurus come and go, and the end result is always the same: "This financial advice is given with the understanding that you may suffer a loss."

Strange isn't it that the loss is usually for the small investor and not for the one giving the advice. Do you remember the case of a giant brokerage house betting AGAINST its own clients? Talk about the right hand not knowing what the left is doing! Did any of these big shots end up in jail? No, of course not. They take the easy way out: paying a fine. Again, notice the disclaimer: ..without admitting any guilt in the operation. Now, how can you, the accused company, pay the amount set by the government and pretend that you didn't do anything wrong? You destroyed families, wiped out pensions, caused massive lay offs, and even suicides; and all you do is pay a fine??

Bloomberg Businessweek (Oct 24-30 edition) says that Citi agreed "to pay $285 million to settle SEC claims that it marketed to investors a mortgage security that it also bet AGAINST."  Then came the classic statement "It neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing." They must think that we are stupid! You pay a fine and then state that you don't admit committing a crime? Because that's what it is, a crime against American families who trusted you to offer a decent investment. I can just imagine one of my students caught cheating during a test saying:"I don't admit or deny I did wrong." What kind of message do we send to the next generation? That's it's OK to cheat and lie?

64, emblem, money icon

The OWS (Occupy Wall Street) movement is the result of so much anger and frustration at bankers and brokers getting away, literally, with murder. It's not a bunch of hippies, Mr. Gingrich, smoking pot and preaching free love. It's a multitude of families clamoring for justice! Of course, none of the republican candidates will admit that financial crimes were committed, simply because Wall Street is paying for their campaigns or hiring them as highly paid consultants; right again, Mr. Gingrich?

The author of  the very successful book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb, offers a strange analysis of the financial crisis; he says that our economic system is not capitalism or socialism, but rather "bankerism". The banks, instead of serving us, are demanding that WE serve them. This statement comes from a man who has been a hedge fund manager, a financial mathematician, and a professor of economics. Banks do us a favor by allowing us to be their customers and once our accounts are in their claws, they happily pile up fees upon fees, some of which most of us aren't aware of. Will some courageous politician from the right of the left rise and advocate putting banks back where they belong? Taking care of our hard-earned dollars and giving us a fair interest?

I know I should stop dreaming and fantasizing; as long as Congress is allowed to consort with financiers and corporations, the fate of the 99% is in the hands of the 1%. What we can we do?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Keep the Faith In Your Children

As parents and as teachers we sometimes lose faith in a child or student; he/she doesn't want to do the work, doesn't respond adequately to requests to improve, turns his/her body away from us when we attempt to communicate, doesn't look us in the eye, sulks, mopes, shrugs his/her shoulders, and sometimes runs away to his/her room or out of school if it is a teen. All these are signs that something is bothering him; it may be of great importance or it may be a passing malaise due to a relationship gone bad with a peer. Responding with impatience, with sarcasm, or with punishment without ascertaining the cause is the worst mistake we can make.

It is imperative to discover the real cause of the child's behavior; is it drugs, failing in school, or worse, being abused by a family member or a teacher? With patience and insistence, the mystery will be solved and the door will open. The teen or the child desperately wants to tell someone of his plight, but shame or fear of punishment can hold them back; yes, punishment! They sometimes feel that they are guilty when abused sexually and some parents may have a history of punishing before knowing the cause of their strange conduct. If the reason is a benign one, it is still possible for the youngster to perceive his problem as a major one. They haven't yet acquired the notion of real value or importance as established by the society in which they live. At 12, I remember stealing an apple from a grocery stand in the street where I lived and feeling terrified that my father might find out. He never did, but a year later, I smoked one of his prized cigars, I was only 13; when he came home, he of course noticed the smell immediately. His punishment? He ordered me to finish it as I had been able to extract only a few puffs. Needless to say, I puked my heart out and never stole a cigar from him again. I was expecting a beating and instead, he selected the adequate consequence that didn't humiliate me (too much).

Children expect to be punished when they misbehave; that is the way it should be in a normal family. If parents ignore the fault committed they are initiating a cascade of unpleasant events: The unacceptable behavior will be repeated, as kids try to push the limits to see how far they can go. As far as they are concerned, there are no unpleasant consequences to the violation of the rules. It is essential however to apply the punishment as soon as possible after the misbehavior; waiting more than one day can only produce undue anxiety in the child; however, the consequences must fit the "crime." I had a tyrannical teacher in elementary who severely punished the most innocent peccadillo, such as turning around or talking to a neighbor. It took me several years to shake off the emotional effects of his discipline strategy.

Students raising hands in class

As parents or teachers, we must be careful not to create permanent resentment against us,  against the social group we represent. If there is one thing teens dislike the most, it is injustice; yet we often accuse them before we have all the facts. We preach respect for the law, respect for the rules of society, but we sometimes act as judge and jury, handing down the sentence with no possibility of appeal. I have witnessed numerous cases of teachers sending a student to the main office while ignoring the main culprit, the one who started the problem. Even serial killers have the right to their day in court, so why is it that we don't offer the same privilege to our children and/or students?

All kids have skills, whether we see them or not; we sometimes prevent such abilities from developing when we force our children or students to follow a different path against their will. I wasn't born to play a musical instrument, yet my parents registered me in an accordion class. My first lesson was how to read music and I escaped from that basement as soon as the poor teacher had her back turned. Luckily, my mother understood that I wasn't cut to be an artist and yodel on the local Alps (Yodeling is a traditional singing art in Switzerland, Germany and Austria). We should always study, assess our children to discover what they do best; this becomes obvious after their second year of life. They may be attracted to a particular activity and show a special, early proficiency. For example, I have seen remarkable drawings by a precocious 2-year old  little girl, the daughter of close friends. Of course, all kids are different and some will reveal their interest later. It could be animals, mechanics, books, music, or even acting in front of a group. Leadership qualities also show early in elementary schools. These skills will serve them well in adult life if we give them opportunities to practice and polish them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a growing child is the emotional development; parents and teachers have the enormous responsibility of providing the right environment at the various stages of early life. A student of mine is constantly interrupting the class by making "funny" comments about other students. He is 17, but he acts like a 3 year-old who constantly craves attention. The purpose is to be recognized, liked by his peers, noticed by the girls, even though he sometimes offends other students and always irritates the teacher. Between the ages of 3 and 5 we seek to establish a personal identity; between the ages of 13 and 18 we seek to establish a social and sexual identity. In both cases we need the affection and encouragement of our families and teachers. That was not the case for this young man who obviously lacked the love and attention he needed earlier in life.

Watch your children carefully; they possess hidden treasures that may remain that way forever if we don't let them flourish naturally by exposing them to a variety of stimuli. Once they become teens and pass puberty, emotional traps may cause them to close their mental doors and deny us access to their inner thoughts. We must keep a sharp eye out for any sudden changes that may signal potential problems. If we keep the communication channels open, free of threats, the teens will eventually find the courage to face and solve their difficulties... with our help of course.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

France & Germany, United No Matter What

Sarkozy, the current President of France, is making a desperate attempt to conserve his position in next year's election. According to the latest polls, he is behind Mr. Hollande, the Socialist candidate, by 15 points. That is the main reason why Sarkozy can be seen on European television almost every day, shaking hands with the German chancellor and trying to save the E.U. (European Union) from falling apart financially and politically. He knows that if he is successful in averting an economic disaster, his compatriots just might give him a second chance.

Let's go back 70 years and remember the invasion of France by the Nazis; this was the second war between these two nations in the 20th century and the E.U. was created specifically to avoid a third conflict. It is therefore remarkable to see these traditional enemies as the stalwart anchors of a united Europe. I can assure you that the ruling political class on both sides of the border are vividly conscious of that fact: It is not, as some analysts imagine, just to save the euro, or even to prevent a recession among the 17 members. The main concept behind the urgency of finding an agreement or changing the existing rules has to do with the enormous fear that a separate and powerful Germany causes to all its neighbors, including of course the Russian Bear.

File:AM Juli 2010 - 3zu4.jpg

Nobody in the European media has actually mentioned the primal shudder of another war on the old continent, but the older generation who still remembers the horrors of WWII is working feverishly to avoid the dismemberment of the 17 nations. I was too young to understand the events between 1940 and 1945, but I grew up listening to the tragic personal experiences of my older relatives and of many German and Italian adults who crossed my life later on. I understand now why my mother, born in Italy, threw away a magnificent photograph of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin (a montage) playing pool: Each ball represented a different European country conquered and savaged by these monsters.

There is a strong reluctance among Germans to put more money into economies that were poorly managed; there is even a proposal floating around that would allow the Union to "take over" the finances of any country which shows an excessive deficit. It won't be approved, but it indicates the degree of impatience in Berlin's political circles. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, must balance the need to keep her majority in the Bundestag against the growing frustration of a large portion of its citizens who would prefer an independent Germany, the biggest economy in the E.U.

Berlusconi, the ex-prime minister of Italy, a billionaire who preferred luscious women to the task of governing, has almost bankrupted his country. I remember, being half-Italian and half-German, that Germany admires Rome, the Rome of Caesar, but not the modern one. During WWII, Mussolini was tolerated in public and despised in private; Hitler knew that Italy wasn't going to offer much resistance to the Allies, but my relatives who were called to fight with the Nazis told me that very few Italian soldiers felt a kinship with Germany. They were forced to fight and escaped as soon as they could.

Even today, Italians see the Germans with some suspicion and vice-versa. Italy is fun, which is why so many Nordic tourists flock to their beaches and historic cities in the summer. Germany is hard work and no fun, except maybe for their beer festivals. The two cultures are completely opposed and will never mesh completely. Thus the motive for keeping the E.U. together whatever the cost..and they will. It all comes together this week as the heads of state gather to draw the new rules.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

School Stress For All

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school (Einstein)

School results are a significant source of stress for both students and parents. One of the main indicators, perhaps the most important one for some, is grades. Students regularly ask me to give them a copy of their grades for every topic and for every marking period. As a special education teacher, I have to make sure that my assigned pupils have a clear path to an occupation or to college after high school. Passing every required course is a constant source of anxiety since graduating cannot be achieved otherwise. Are we giving too much importance to grades as opposed to other indicators that may give a better information as to the readiness of these teenagers?

International academic achievement results place us, the United States, in the first tier of the pack for Reading (17), in the lower 50% in Math, number 22 in Science; there are 65 countries involved in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) survey. Considering that we are still the largest economy in the world and have the most powerful military force, these results may seem to predict a gloomy future for our country. But on the positive side of education, we produce more Nobel Prize winners than any other comparable region in the world, we have the best research centers, we enjoy the best hospitals (though the cost of medical care is ridiculously high), we produce the best technology, and we host the largest corporations. Furthermore, foreign students flock to our best-known universities, famous for the quality of their teachers and research labs.

Coming back to the anxiety-provoking grades, I'd like to ask teachers and parents what the difference is between a 69 and 70 (for those using numbers), or an 89 and a 90, or a 98 and a 100. It may be fairer to use letters such A,B,C,D and F (failure). But the eventual all-important GPA (grade point average) will determine whether the student goes to top universities or merely the average ones, therefore creating a load of stress for the young candidates. The same argument applies to the entrance examinations such as SAT or ACT. The eventual score will have profound consequences.
bookcase, books, school icon

It is ironic that some of the most brilliant minds in our country failed to finish college or even high school. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is a case in point; he dropped out of no less than Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious university in the world. Henry Ford never went to college and yet founded one of the most valuable automotive brands. Dave Thomas dropped out of high school to start Wendy's restaurants. But of course talent with a capital "T" will always find a way to succeed. The problem sometimes comes from parents who refuse to let their gifted offspring choose a career they object to.

For the vast majority of teens, the downside of failing grades in high school is not an academic problem; many students simply stop going to school, believing that they are incapable of succeeding in that environment. Some drop outs join gangs, where they find the acceptance they crave. Others are content with menial jobs that pay very little and offer no future. A valiant effort has been made in many school districts to visit their homes and try convincing them to return and finish their schooling. But that costs money and nowadays school budgets are reflecting the national crisis, barely able to meet the most pressing demands.

It is imperative for public education in the U.S. to find new ways of evaluating children by eliminating the undue stress caused by the need to pass the standardized tests. Some of the most successful countries have rejected these measures outright and still manage to produce well-prepared students. Yes, schools need some kind of measuring stick, but let's not make it the torture instrument it is today.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Whatever It Takes

An article from the teachers' magazine TSTA Advocate and written by LynNell Hancock (winter 2011-12) titled "Why are Finland's school successful?" describes the amazing results public schools (not private) in that Nordic country have been able to achieve,  topping academic rankings on a worldwide basis for several years.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) publishes annually the educational ranking by country; Finland has been at the top for several years and we, the U.S. have vegetated in the middle of the pack for quite a while. We may reject these studies as fantasies concocted by international bureaucrats who have to justify their jobs. Perhaps! But the numbers still give a general idea regarding which educational system works best; the surprising findings indicate that the Finns have no standardized tests. As their top teachers frequently comment:"A test result cannot begin to describe what a good teacher does. It eliminates the human component which is all important in the classroom". One more fact: 90% of Finnish students go to public schools and have complete health coverage paid by the state until they leave high school. Wow! I can just hear some Republicans heading for the doors to vent their indignation at this blatant intervention by the national government. HOW DARE THEY? WE MAY AS WELL  SOCIALIZE THE WHOLE PACKAGE!                                                                                    

(The capital letters indicate right-wing politicians shouting) 

The article adds a very significant piece of information: "..its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around."

Whatever it takes! Wow! They refuse to allow failure due to lack of skills, low intelligence level, and/or family circumstances. Lest you readers accuse me of favoring the Nordic race, allow me to add a juicy tidbit that will resonate with our immigration foes:"..more than half of its elementary students are immigrants, from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia.."

And we complain because we have immigrants from Central America on our southern border? The teachers in Finland take a boy from Somalia who knows no Finnish and within a year, the youngster can sustain conversations with his schoolmates. They give him an intense, full immersion training in his new language day after day for 52 weeks. The head of public education stated that they don't teach children how to test but how to learn. Their students learn how to learn. Do ours? Granted, the Suomi nation has only 6 million inhabitants due to its abundance of Arctic land. But don't you think that it could be used as a perfectly valid sample in a research paper on education?

They have roughly the same proportion of kids with learning disabilities that we have and, except for the most severely affected, they mix them with the general population of students, a practice that is more and more common in U.S. schools. One of the "secrets" of Finnish academic success is to have small schools with small groups. The teachers there say that they know every kid and follow them throughout the years until they pass to the next level. That factor, to me, a teacher with 25 years of experience, is key to the academic success of the student. Again, in high school, we have begun doing the same and I can say that an intimate knowledge of the pupil and his/her family helps enormously when it comes time to make a decision such as going to college or to a vocational school.

Those who propose private vouchers to parents so that they may register their children in private schools push a very bad idea. A recent investigation of IDEA schools revealed that they receive mostly high functioning students who would be successful anywhere. It doesn't take a genius of a teacher to teach smart kids; they usually teach themselves very well. It takes a very dedicated instructor to achieve success with a learning disabled student. It takes time, patience, and savvy. Private schools lack time and patience as their main goal is to make money.

Why don't we "import" a 100 Finnish teachers who speak English to work in our most challenged schools; maybe they can teach us a few things.