Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Give Us All Some Breaks

I've talked about my admiration for The Oxford American a few times before on this blog and on Humid City. I am in awe of its history, of the content and contemporary talent it's been able to amass over the years, of how it has become the Southern magazine that has been able to rise above the trials of scrambling for another publisher, the tribulations of having had a substantial amount of money embezzled out from under it by a former employee, and the hassles of having to relocate to Conway, Arkansas (as a former boyfriend's magnet from Conway once proclaimed, the OA's home these past few years is "halfway between Pickles Gap and Toad Suck," which could be construed as being pretty damn hillbilly Southern - don't strain your ears too hard listening for the banjos).

Problem is, I think, after all this time, OA editor Marc Smirnoff needs a break from writing the editorials in his own magazine. A big break. Just before this year's Southern Music Issue, too many of his blatherings of late have left me with a feeling that he was simply rambling in a head-scratching way. What was the point? At least the music issue kept him fairly focused...and then this takedown of Garden and Gun magazine comes down the pike. There's a degree to which it was written to reassure himself of the rightness of the mission he embarked on in founding the OA in the first place - and I don't dispute the rightness of that mission - but I do question the vitriol Smirnoff pours into his diatribes against G&G, throwing in references to its larger-than-OA's subscription numbers and its luring Roy Blount Jr. away from his regular column in the OA, then circling back to a salient, important point about glossy, good-looking magazines like G&G leaving the thorny subject of race out of their focus on surface matters and a literal whitewashing of what the South is really like. It all makes me grateful that Smirnoff only really vents his spleen like this in print once every 20 years - and it saddens me that it takes his being vehemently against something to light writing fires like this under his butt. At least the content of OA overall hasn't suffered...


Via Twitter, something else to think about:

Andre Perry
finished up meeting with technology leader who flatly said there is too much politics and drama in for to include his child

 Let's first get one thing straight: if you become a parent, and you care, there's going to be a certain amount of politics and drama involved in damn near anything you do for your children, whether it's which school you will have them attend, which extracurricular activities they'll be involved in, even - to a certain extent - which friends they have. It's why any decision to even have a child should not be taken lightly.

Now that that's out of the way, let's discuss perception vs. reality...and not just in New Orleans public ed, though the decision by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to back diverting public money to vouchers for private schools is bad enough

While I was up in New York celebrating my grandfather's 90th birthday, my grandma, a longtime teaching veteran in her neighborhood public school, was appalled at the massive, splashy teacher ratings article published in the Rupert Murdoch-run New York Post this past Saturday that was erroneous and mean-spirited. Check the criticism of it here and the stuff the numbers don't say. My husband took one look at the numbers and, statistician and high school alumnus that he is, assumed that the standardized test scores students got were attributed to their homeroom teachers, which, in lots of cases, are not the teachers doing most of the instruction for the tests. Also, if all you've been teaching as a public school instructor is English, what's the point of giving you a math score? These teacher numbers ending up saying little more than, "You teachers are the bad people ruining our schools, and even if these numbers are completely, utterly wrong, at least they will be on record and someone will deny you a job shaping young minds because of them."

Grandma had a few questions about charter schools for me and how they operate in New Orleans. I had to tell her about the charters' semi-autonomy and how it doesn't help them pay for things like busing kids to their schools. I'm glad I hadn't heard about Lafayette Parish's lunch program payment woes before I talked with her. The trends in public education right now are for the state to assume less responsibility for educating the children that live here, and that usually means the few dollars that were going to education in the first place are being cut to fractions of cents. When even Leslie Jacobs is questioning the ultimate efficacy of voucher programs, not to mention whether voucher students will be subject to the same state testing despite their private school attendance, one has to wonder.

So yes, there is a lot of drama and politics involved in public education these days, because so many want to fix it so damned badly. If Bobby Jindal and the lege in Baton Rouge have their way, even more drama and politics above and beyond tuition payments and possible beefs with teachers and administrators over the direction of your child's education and well-being will be seeping into the private schools. 

I wonder how that tech leader Andre Perry spoke to will like them apples?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


It's that time of year again. The time when we are holed up in our abode on the gray brick road, pretty much paraded out - as we are only a block and a half from the parade route - but would like nothing more than to feed our friends, old and new, as they go along their merry way on Mardi Gras. For whatever reason, rabbits seem to be the thing since my last Saturday's adventures in Abita Springs (more on that soon), so here's the invite. At the very least, it provides you with a place to pee on Mardi Gras day.

You are Invited to the 6th Annual Carnival Ball of
“the krewe with the edible doubloons”

Where: Our House (email me at liprap2@netscape.net for details)

When: Mardi Gras Day (that’s Tuesday, February 21, 2012) from 8am until noon, or whenever Leigh kicks you out

What: Pancakes, and lots of ‘em (and syrup, too)
Who: You
Why: for the fun of it

Krewe Fees: We’re supplying pancakes, syrup, coffee, milk, juice, and probably Leigh’s homemade king cake, so bring whatever else you want to share.

Honorary Krewe Royalty: King… Manny Flapjax
Queen… Belle June Waughful

Need to get in touch with us? liprap2@netscape.net

* food disclaimer: pretend you keep kosher and please bring something other than pork, shellfish, catfish, or anything that mixes milk and meat in the same dish.

“Religious” disclaimer… We started this because we like pancakes, always make too many of them, don’t want to give up our parking spots for Mardi Gras, and like company. This has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian tradition of observing Shrove Tuesday or “Pancake Day” by making and eating pancakes, which we didn’t learn about until a few years ago.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In the past week, I won tickets to this event and decided to drag Dan to it.

So we headed to the Quarter, where finding a parking spot we didn't have to pay an arm and a leg for was nearly a serious drag until my parking karma held against some staggering odds... Just you try to fit into a parking spot you have patiently waited for, one that is only an inch or two larger than your car, while an NOPD squad car has pulled over a cab that has been caught in the act of jumping the curb and straddling the sidewalk to try to pass you as you wait for the spot to be freed up. I did my best to head into this very tight spot without bumping the fenders of the cars in front and behind me for fear of the cop turning on me next and issuing some sort of citation after he'd finished with the cabbie. I still can't believe I did it.

What we also couldn't believe was the note the previous occupiers of our parking spot left for the car behind us, one that rudely told off the driver of the car for parking right up on the bumper of the first car. Dan yanked it off the windshield for fear of the driver returning, thinking it was we who left the note, and then deciding something bad had to happen to our car. It is a must to protect good parking karma, you see.

We headed into the king cake tasting, had a large amount of several different bakeries' worth of Carnival pastry, and then we came across Larry Ragusa. That's right.

He told us all the other king cakes were crap next to his. He then said something to me that recalled this night's experience...and something in me put on a stone face and said, okay, I'll try it.

Yes, that's a king cake with a layer of salami and olive salad in it.

Dan had a huge piece and got a baby. I had a bite and nearly gagged. "It's a muffuletta with frosting is all," Dan said. All I know is that it's one of the answers to the question of "when is a king cake no longer a king cake?"

We learned a little later that we'd been spoofed...but context is everything. The filmmakers brought the Ragusa-style king cake as a joke, but they'd put it on the table next to the Manny Randazzo's and before they knew it, the second of the Ragusa's had to be brought out. Never underestimate the omnivorous nature of New Orleanians' palates was their lesson that night.

I managed to shoe-horn the car back out of the spot (the driver of the car behind us had still not returned) and as we parked in a nice, roomy area by our curb, Dan jokingly asked me if I thought I had enough room.

"I don't know," I replied. "I think the driver of the car behind us has to learn how to park."

"HEY, no name calling." Dan said as we both giggled.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

I've described this video to others before. It's a blast from my glassworking past, the film shown to us all as, first and foremost, an example of what NOT to do in a glass shop. We giggled at the pipes flying through the air, exclaimed over the lack of protective eyewear, and were overwhelmed, in the end, by the poverty that hung over each and every shop visited in Firozabad.

I can't believe it's on YouTube now.


The two things that distinguish most studio glass shops in modern first world countries from the times when the Romans began to gather hot glass on the ends of metal pipes and blow it into various shapes, I was told, are the usage of compressed air to cool specific areas of a glass bubble and the usage of propane torches to heat specific areas of a glass bubble. All the rest is more or less unchanged.

Watch Glass India, though, and the third world seems to be still fully encased in the amber of Roman times.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Motivate Me

Locally, our alternative weekly has been mostly milquetoast on the subject of public education "reform" and privatization in the schools - cover stories in the past few months that tout an education think tank and two education reformers, one of whom got censured by the AAUP for de-tenuring Tulane faculty in the wake of the levee breaches (which was not mentioned in the current article) aren't exactly examples of a critical look at education at work. The closest the Gambit gets to any critical stance of privatization is in the publication of a two-part article by Lisa Rab on the Mavericks high schools in Florida, a series of schools that has relied on a matched set of smoke and mirrors - technology and location, all publicly funded - that have collapsed under intense scrutiny of the corruption that dogs their very existence and their m.o. Forget that the Gambit won't turn a similarly critical eye on what is happening right in its hometown...what jumped out at me from part 2 on the Mavericks schools was this:
Part of Mavericks' problem may be the teaching model: Parking troubled kids in front of a computer and hoping they'll learn — instead of watching the latest Kardashian viral video on YouTube. Research shows that for virtual learning to work, "Students need to be very self disciplined and have supportive environments," Miron says. "If they're not self-guided and self-motivated, then it's gonna be a hard match."
Yes, Louisiana does have a virtual classroom - an entire virtual school, in fact. There are good reasons to take courses online - I myself have taken some college-level courses online - but I question the level of commitment to learning kids under eighteen will have when plunked in front of a screen and keyboard. And I'm not the only one:
I’d like to consider (an electrical engineer-turned-high school math teacher's) more fundamental idea, which is that technology in schools can be, in many ways, more a distraction than a solution.  
 “The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in student success, which is the student’s attitude toward learning and motivation,” wrote my new friend the math teacher.  “The truth is that if students are motivated to learn, they will learn, pretty much regardless of the specific format or technology that is used in the lessons themselves.  Conversely, if a student is not interested in learning, the details of how lessons are presented, technology, etc. don’t matter very much…the student will find whatever way is available to avoid learning…they may socialize with their neighbors, or frequently ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or simply try to tune out and take a nap during class.  Thus, while we focus on how teachers teach, I’m finding that the real key to student success is not so much how you teach but how you go about motivating students to want to learn, and how the systems you use in the classroom help support and encourage students to succeed even when they are not intrinsically motivated by the subject.”  
He’s correct. In an ideal world students want to learn and teachers want to teach and the two meet in a common space where knowledge is transferred. Except how often and how well does that really happen?
Robert Cringely goes on to address the use of technology in education further in two more articles that are a good read - one of which states that for technology to really motivate the student to learn, it must function as a hired companion would, on a one-on-one responsive basis with each student. I keep imagining that kind of relationship as going something like this:

"Hello, TeacherBot, how are you today?"
"Doing fine today, Leigh. Let's talk about the effective use of titles to your posts..."
"Aw, do we have to?"
"There's nothing like an effective title to draw your readers in, Leigh. This is a learning experience."
"You keep repeating a part of the mammalian anatomy. We aren't discussing that subject right now."
"Teach, if this were up for publication, then yes, I feel a title would be warranted, but I see this as more of a diary."
"Your entries are public, Leigh. Readers make quick judgments these days. A title must grab the reader and make the reader want to peruse your writing further, thus giving your work some proper attention and a chance for it to get more feedback and then more readers for your next effort."
"Oh, well, when you put it that way..."
"Leigh, it is a worthy exercise. I'd put the sarcasm away as well, if I were you."
grumble...mumble..."Okay, let me get to work..."

Ah, motivation. The Holy Grail of teaching. Motivated students will follow you everywhere and simultaneously challenge you at the same time to keep up with them and stay a few steps ahead - but only if you as a teacher are willing to go there. It is a two-way street.

Even before privatization cranked into full gear here, it was tough finding motivated teachers - low pay didn't really compensate for the long hours, the many out-of-pocket expenses, and the largely inadequate facilities many teachers had in the New Orleans public schools pre-8-29-2005. The testing manias, the rage for TFA-ers over certified, diploma'd teachers, and the low pay plus little-to-no benefits make the atmosphere for motivated teachers even more stifling in the traditional public schools and the charters. A move towards Mavericks-style setups here in Louisiana would only work if the old GIGO was taken into account - that is, "garbage in-garbage out." From both the student end AND the teacher's end of the virtual classroom, if you throw garbage at each other, all that will come from it is a virtual landfill. The one-on-one via PC is not close to perfect unless embraced fully by both student and teacher...and I don't think we're even close to that situation in many of the traditional teacher-student relationships, much less the virtual ones.

I have no problems with technology being used in concert with a traditional teacher-student learning situation. Replacing the traditional entirely with technology, however, isn't feasible and should not be advisable.

There have been many hints and allegations that there might be more of a push from within the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to make entire K-12 schools virtual. Good for the students? It's probably only good for the state's coffers.

If that does actually come to pass, it would be a huge mistake atop the many others BESE is intent on making.

Update, 1:50 PM: Just to add to the tech in education debates: