Category Archives: Education

Teaching History

Here’s an idea that would revolutionize the teaching of history. Schools should adopt it right away.

First, list nine random human characteristics, like so:

  1. red-headed
  2. left-handed
  3. taller than average
  4. full-blooded Cherokee
  5. diabetic
  6. mentally ill
  7. deaf
  8. tatooed
  9. egotistical

Second, list nine random human activities, like so:

  1. architecture
  2. chess
  3. weaving
  4. oceanography
  5. baton twirling
  6. debate
  7. violin playing
  8. hockey
  9.  inventing

Now randomly match the two lists, and assign each combination to a different month, like so:

  1. September–Cherokee Hockey Players Month
  2. October–Mentally Ill Weavers Month
  3. November–Deaf Oceanographers Month
  4. December–Red-headed Inventors Month
  5. January–Diabetic Baton Twirlers Month
  6. February–Egotistical Violinists Month
  7. March–Tatooed Debaters Month
  8. April–Left-Handed Chess Players Month
  9. May–Tall Architects Month

Each grade would get their own unique list of months, and every year new lists would be generated, so that by the time a kid graduated, he or she would know the history of 108 different groups of people.

You might be thinking that this is not a very good way to teach history. I agree, and I think that we should stop. We already have Black History Month, and California is about to require “Gay History” in its public school curriculum. Isn’t history just history? It includes black people and gay people and gay black people, and it also includes left-handed Cherokees who play the violin. History should be the study of the events of the past, whoever happened to be involved in them.

A better way to organize the teaching of history seems to me to be chronologically.  Depending on the scope of the history course, it could be done century by century or decade by decade.  It should also have a geographic component, based on the scope of the course.  So, for example, a world history course might have a unit on the 19th Century and be organized around the following questions:

1.  What were the noteworth events of that period worldwide?

2.  Who were the people that had a significant impact on the rest of the world?

3.  What was happening on each of the seven continents, and who were the most significant people on each of them?

4.  What major changes were occurring in human thought and human behavior during that century?

That to me, is good history.

Here We Go Again: Free Exercise or Separation

Another example of the tenstion between the free exercise of religion and the prohibition for the Congress to write laws regarding an establishment of religion (the Consitution does not say “separation of church and state”) has just surfaced.  A school in Vermont prohibited the valedictorian from talking about his religious beliefs during his valedictory address.

Back in 1981 I was the valedictorian of my high school class.  I had to submit the text of my speech to my English teacher, who was the class sponsor.  She liked it and approved it.  She told my father, the day before graduation that it was a “nifty speech.”  My speech was primarily about gratitude–how we should all be grateful to the people who had helped us reach that point of graduating from high school–our parents, our teachers, and our friends.  It also mentioned that we should be grateful to God.  I did not spend much time talking about God or about my faith in him, but I felt that my conscience would not allow me to leave it out.

As I presented my speech, several people in the audience called out “Amen!”  Especially among the African American members of the audience who always do so in church.  Nobody, absolutely nobody, said that they were offended or told me that it was inappropriate.  Nobody sued the school.  In fact,  I would have filed a suit against the school if they had censored me.  I worked hard to become the valedictorian, and it was my speech.  I had the right to express in it whatever I wanted, as long as it did not actually harm anybody.

The principal in Vermont said, according to Fox News, “We are absolutely strong supporters of free speech.”  I don’t think he knows what the word absolutely means–or the word strong.  They banned parts of the young man’s speech, for heaven’s sake.  They are very weak supporters of free speech.  They caved into fear of being sued, apparently.

I wrote a few weeks ago about a valedictorian in a Texas school who was banned from including a prayer in her graduation speech.  She sued and lost, but then on appeal she won.  I made the point then that the courts need to help school administrators by settling this issue once and for all.  Maybe our Founding Fathers should have been clearer.  According to some, they wanted to ban all expressions of religious belief in public, but that could not be true, since their writings and speeches contain references to God, they had many government buildings inscribed or decorated with Bible passages and Bible scenes, and they sponsored public prayers.

Principals and superintendents are in a tough position.  If they ban religious speech, they could get sued.  If they allow religious speech, they could get sued.  What are they supposed to do?

The simplest solution is to follow the free exercise clause and allow students to say whatever they want, as long as they do not harm anyone in the process.

A quotation from the Burlington Free Press explains the current legal situation:  “‘Court cases have offered some parameters but have not quite settled the debate over exactly what can and can’t be said,’ said Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School who has been discussing just this topic with students for the past six months. ‘The law on this issue is very unclear,’ she said.”  No kidding.  We have one Constitution of the United States, and it addresses this very issue, yet a graduate in Texas got to say a prayer while a graduate in Vermont had to excise half his speech.

Professor Hanna also said that schools are at risk of violating the First Amendment if they allow students to say things that could be construed as proselytizing or prayer by a “reasonable observer” who could believed that the school “endorsed” the speech.  Here I think is the crux of the matter.  Apparently some people are convinced that if a person like Kyle Gearwar in Vermont says something at a school ceremony that he is epxressing the official position of the school.  I do not see how a “reasonable observer” could reach that conclusion.  Only a person who is extremely stupid or a person who is purposely contentious could think so.  The guidelines from the Department of Education suggest that the school publish or recite a disclaimer if they are concerned that the content of a student’s expression might be seen as an endorsement by the school.  I think such a disclaimer would have been a reasonable way for the school in Vermont to handle this situation.

When Gearwar gave his speech, he explained that he had been required to cut out parts of it.  A man in the crowd called out for him to read it anyway.  Gearwar wouldn’t, because he had promised the principal that he would not.  Good for him for keeping his word.  However, I have to ask, why should the people who did not want to hear the entire speech, if there were any, take precedence over the people who did want to hear it?  How many people would actually object to hearing a bright young man express whatever he wanted to during his shining moment?  You don’t have to agree with something to listen to it.  Maybe one or two people, if that many, would have objected, but why should they have the legal power to force their views on everyone else, since hearing the speech would not harm them in any way?

The article in the Burlington paper has a link to a video of the graduation ceremony and a link to the full text of Gearwar’s original speech, if you are interested in finding out what was so terrible that he could not say it.  People can burn U. S. flags but not talk about God.  I can hardly believe how mixed-up our country is.

Another Brick in the Wall

A school in California asked for donations of money for bricks to build a walkway.  Good for them.  It is good to get the community involved in a project like that, and it is better than spending confiscated tax funds.

People began donating bricks, and some of them were inscribed with inspirational words.  One had the words “Yes, it is possible” written in Spanish.  One had a quotation by Gandhi.  Why not?  It would be great for students and others walking along the path to be encouraged, inspired, and motivated by wise words.

But then two women, independent of each other, donated books with verses from the Bible inscribed on them.  That was the one thing that was intolerable.  School officials worried that the bricks represented an unconstitutional establishment of religions.

Could somebody please explain how some words that people are going to walk on, mingled with other words that people are going to walk on, indicate that the school is now a religious institution.  Which religion does it make the school, anyway?

Even if having some Bible passages on some bricks on a path suddenly turns the school into a church, the Constitution says nothing about that paraticular thing.  It says that the Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion.  Is a local public school the Congress?  Is installing the bricks the same as passing a law?

Harmed by Prayer

I wish that our American courts would settle once and for all the issue of whether people can or cannot express religious beliefs in public.  It seems that every time somebody wants to give an invocation at a school event or to post a religious picture in a civic building, other people sue them.  Then courts rule–often in seemingly contradictory rulings to those previously made.  Appeals are made.  Rulings are reversed.  We still, apparently, do not have a settled policy on the matter.

I think it makes it very hard on school administrators not to know if and when the next person is going to sue the school for something.  They could get sued for not allowing a prayer.  They could get sued for allowing a prayer.  Really, it is time to answer this question once and for all.  I, of course, hope the answer is that the First Amendment means what it says–that free religious expression is a right.

A school in Texas is about to have a prayer said during the valedictory speech at their graduation ceremony.  That’s thanks to a federal court who overturned a ruling by another judge who had banned the prayer.

The most interesting thing in the case to me is that the original plaintiff claimed that hearing the prayer would cause “irreparable harm” to their son.  Really?  Hearing words that he disagrees with addressed to a Deity he doesn’t belive in would harm him?  Not only that, but would harm him in a way that could never be repaired?  If that boy or his parents really believe that hearing a prayer would cause him irreparable harm, then he already has something wrong with him–perhaps irreparably wrong with him.

He needs to grow up.  In this big, wide world there are many things that people face every day that they find disagreeable.  There are things that offend, things that annoy, things that we consider completely bogus.  That’s life, as my parents would say, so deal with it.  Nobody was going to burn him with a hot poker or pull his tongue out with pincers, after all.

I visited a Buddhist temple once and even got a tour of it.  I found it interesting and educational to learn about the art and architecture of the temple and to see people worshipping there.  I did not participate in the rituals, because that would be contrary to my own beliefs.  However, I experienced absolutely no harm from watching people bowing, praying, meditating, and burning incense to the Buddha and to their ancestors.  Let me say it again, I was not harmed in even the smallest way.  And if a class valedictorian is a Buddhist and wants to offer a prayer or meditation, how in the world could that do any harm to anyone?

In fact, some Christians contend that it is harmful to kids to go to school and pretend day after day that there is no God and–more illogically–that nobody believes in God.  It is harmful for a person who practices any religion to be given the impression that his religion is something bad to be kept secret because expressing it openly will harm other people.  It is harmful to allow free rein to atheists and agnostics but to prohibit those who believe in God from mentioning it.

I have a well-thought-out view on religion in school.  First, religions exist.  They are a part of history and of current events.  Therefore, students should learn about them the same way that they learn about other subjects.  Second, each and every student should have the right to practice his or her religion and to share his or her beliefs freely.  I believe that it is a First Amendment right to do so.  (Naturally, there must be limitations to prevent disruptions or tangible harm to others.)  Third, teachers should not take sides when it comes to religion or promote a religion in class; however in certain contexts I see no harm in a teacher mentioning his or her personal religious beliefs in a non-pushy way.  I went to a small school in a small town.  We knew which church each teacher attended and knew which teachers did not attend church at all.  It was no big deal.   Fourth, if people really want diversity and tolerance, then “the more the merrier” is the way to go.  More religious expression will demonstrate more diversity and showing respect to all religions by allowing for their free expression in school will demonstrate true tolerance.  Why not recognize all religious holidays when they occur–Diwali and Hanukkah and Eid ul Fitr.

After all, how is it diverse if every teacher and every student must pretend that nobody believes in God or practices religion?  That is sameness, not diversity.  And how is it tolerant to say that students cannot speak freely about what they believe?  That is the definition of intolerance.

Best and Worst Teacher Gifts

I have been a teacher for 25 years now.  Over the years I have received numerous gifts from students.  I do not expect them, especially when the economy is in a slump and most of my students’ parents cannot afford much.I am just as happy when the students and the parents thank me verbally or write a note that expresses their appreciation.  If you do choose to give a gift to a teacher, may I make a few suggestions of what not to give and what to give.


1.  Any Item Shaped Like an Apple or Decorated With an Apple Motif

For me, it is a cliche.  Very few people send a real apple to the teacher anymore, although I have had people do so, and I like it when they do.  However, I have never decorated my classroom or my house with apples or apple motifs, so I would prefer not to get an apple placque or an ruler or pen with an apple on it.

Then again, if you know that the teacher likes to collect apple-themed objects or if you have observed that motif in the classroom, I am sure that she would enjoy such a gift.  Isn’t that the essence of good gift-giving anyway–to give the person what they really like?

2.  Anything That Says “Best Teacher”

Really.  What is a person supposed to do with a placque that says Best Teacher in the World?  If you hang it up, people might think that you put it up yourself and are a terrible egoist.  Or they might think that some parent felt obliged to get the teacher something and were not sincere.  I mean, who could even determine who the best teacher in the world is?

Some of my former students have said that I am the best teacher that they have ever had.  Some of my former students probably think the opposite.  That’s the way it goes.  The ones who say that I am the best tend to be boys who are on the brainy side or who are interested in art or music.  I can identify with them, and they probably identified with me.  They had a special connection with me that makes them think of me as “the best.”  But I do not believe that I am actually the best, so please don’t rub it in by giving me a coffee mug that says that I am the #1 Teacher.

It’s actually kind of funny, because most teachers’ lounges are full of those mugs.  Imagine a group of techers all sipping from mugs that proclaim them to be #1.

3.  Perfume or Cologne

Most people don’t consider their kid’s teacher as worthy of really expensive scents, so teachers often end up with cheap stuff.  And, honestly, no scent is better than a cheap scent.  The teacher might absolutely hate it, and might even be allergic to it.

Then again, if you know the teacher well enough, and know what scent he or she likes, go for it.  It would probably be very welcome.

4.  An Inspirational Book for Teachers

I have about six of those.  I find them mildly amusing and occasionally inspirational or encouraging.  If the teacher has already been teaching for a few years, you can probably assume that they have several of those books.  If they really, really need more inspiration they will buy more of them themselves.

5.  Knick-knacks

My wife and I have received dozens of knick-kancks made of porcelain, glass, pewter, and other materials.  While it is a very thoughtful thing, there just aren’t enough places in our house to put them all, and, frankly, they often clash with our decor and with the other knick-knacks we have.  We have usually given them to other people or sold them in a yard sale.

But, if you know that the teacher collects yellow roses or bald eagles, then by all means, add to his or her collection.


1.  Anything Personally Meaningful

One of my most treasured gifts from a student was a statue of my head that the student made in clay.  It really resembled me and was amusing.  The fact that the student made it is why it is a treasure to me.

One of my students remembered that I would sometimes say that the Ford Mustang is my favorite car, and so he gave me a Matchbox Mustang.  I loved it and still value it.

I have kept every hand-drawn picture that any student has given me.  They are more special to me than anything they or their parents could buy.

A handwritten note or card from the student is terrific.  A photograph of the student with his or her signature on the back is another great gift.  Even though they are very cheap gifts, they are certain to be appreciated and kept for years, probably even forever.  Simplicity is often the way to go.

2.  Food

You pretty much cannot go wrong with a fruit basket, baked goods, or a gourmet cheese.  Even if the teacher doesn’t like it or cannot eat it, he or she will undoubtedly share it with friends and family.  My wife and I have always enjoyed edible gifts from our students, especially at Christmastime.  Since we have always been on a tight budget, it help us financially.  One year we were given so many goodies by our students, that we had a Christmas party at our house and did not have to buy anything extra for refreshments.

3.  A Gift Card

Even though it is not very personal, it is a very much appreciated gift to an underpaid teacher.  It also allows you to show your appreciation to the teacher while knowing that they will get something that they definitely like.  If it is for a restaurant, it will allow the teacher to go out and have a good time, which they probably do not do as often as they wish.

4.  A Donation in Honor of the Teacher

I cannot speak for all teachers, but it would please me, and this is the kind of gift that should please anyone on any occasion.  It is all the better if the donation is for a cause that you know that the teacher believes in or has a connection to.  It is probably a bad idea to try to honor a teacher who likes to hunt by giving a donation to PETA.  A scholarship fund or the Red Cross are two that just about anyone would feel honored by.

5.  Desk Supplies

Many teachers buy a lot of their own supplies, especially as schools decrease classroom budgets (usually while increasing administration budgets).   Giving them some supplies will help them immensely.  I recommend making them plain and generic, unless you know what designs would please the teacher.

If you know the teacher well enough, you could get supplies decorated with flowers, cats, a sports mascot, or whatever.  Supplies imprinted with their last name are useful and are less likely to be permanently “borrowed” by other teachers or by students in the class.


My Problem With Single-Gender Classrooms

     I recently read an article about the idea of single-gender classrooms and single gender-schools.  It was a popular educational idea a few years ago, and it was an old magazine that I am reading.  I don’t know how many schools have adopted the approach, but I have a problem with it myself.

     The article included feedback from kids.  One boy indicated that the boys would talk about cars or about hockey in their class.  A girl said that girls are good at language and history but not at math or science.

     Really?  Statistically speaking and generally speaking the kids are right, but what about those who do not fit the norm?  What about the girl who likes cars and hockey and who excels at math?  What about the boy who hates sports and cannot grasp math concepts easily but who likes to write poetry?

     In a mixed-sex classroom a skilled teacher will try to have something for everyone.  He or she will use examples from everyday life that range from sports to cooking to playing monopoly to reparing automobiles.  He or she will use a variety of teaching methods to connect with different types of learners–visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile.  The idea that learning styles or even interests divide neatly along gender lines is extremely old fashioned.

     This subject matters to me a lot because I was an atypical boy.  My favorite subjects were language and history.  Math did not come easily to me.  I liked art and music and any other creative activity.  I am an auditory learner and a verbal processor.  I learn best by listening and talking, and I actually am clumsy when doing hands-on activities.  If you had stuck me in an all-boys classroom and had taught it according to the needs and wants of the stereotypical boy, I would have been extremely frustrated.

     The same would be true for a girl who happens to be athletically or mechanically minded.  Putting her in a class where girls are assumed to be prone, as a kid who they interviewed in the article said, to gossip and giggling, she would be very unhappy indeed.

     What do you think?  Perhaps I am being overly senstive.  Of course, it is fairly popular these days to be overly senstive.  Every minoriy, even a minority of one, is thought by some to be “entitled” to special privileges .  Would you enjoy going to school that way?  Do you think it would have advantages?

School Choice Wins Victory

     I don’t know exactly how to react to the Supreme Court ruling on the Arizona tax credit for people who donate to scholarships for private schools.  I think it is a good thing, but I think it takes some weird logic to support the law or to agree with the ruling.  It seems to boil down to a legal technicality.

     I think, first off, that it was very clever of Arizona lawmakers to find a way around bans in their own constitution to supporting private schools directly.  Five Supreme Court justices agree.    I hate that American laws have become so heavy-handed that government entities have to resort to such convoluted measures to get around them.  It seems that if the state of Arizona wants to help pay for private education in some way or other, they should have the power to do so. 

     Second, I think that it is absolutely bizarre to say that Arizona’s law violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause.  Just because some kids in Arizona can now afford to attend private schools does not mean that now every American citizen must belong to the Roman Catholic Church or to the Southern Baptist Church or to any other religious body.  It boggles the mind that people can make such a wild claim, but people have–including dissenting Justice Elena Kagan.  (Under the Constitution of the United States, the state of Arizona could have an official religion and pay money to schools that promote that religion.  That was happening in some states before and after the ratification of the Consitution.  It’s too bad that revisionism has trumped the text of the Constitution.)

     My Dutch friends are amazed that American parents have to spend so much money out of their own pockets to send their children to a Christian school.  Many kids attend Christian schools (and other ‘private’ schools) in the Netherlands that are fully funded by the government.  After all, they pay taxes just like everyone else, so why shouldn’t the government provide the type of schooling that they want just as it provides the type of schooling that secular parents want? 

    Somehow the Dutch government pays for private school without having an official state religion.  If they can do it, then I am sure that we can, too.  We certainly can do it if we look at money that the state is spending on education on a per capita basis and allow each family to use that money as they choose.  That seems more fair than providing one type of education and making people pay twice to get a different, usualy better, type.

Dumbing Down in Dayton

     Dayton, Ohio, has lowered the standard for the police officer qualifying test.  To qualify, applicants had to score 66% and 72% on the two parts, but now they only need to score 58% and 63%.  Would you want a police officer coming to your rescue who could only master a little over half of the material on a test–material that he could learn from the prepration booklet?  I wouldn’t.

     But what is the city to do?  They have been criticized for not having enough African Americans on the police force.  They need new recruits badly.  Apparently any warm body will do.

     What bothers me is the inherent racism.  Last year I commented on the Connecticut firefighters who were denied promotion because of affirmative action.  Some commenters told me I was wrong, but the Supreme Court backed me up.  It was unfair discrimination, because the white firefighters happened to be more qualified than some of the black firefighters who were put ahead of them.

     If a white person were to sneer at African American officers and say, “You only got on the force because you are black,” many people would call that person a racist.  Okay, but what do you call city leaders who are making that claim a reality?

      And isn’t the real problem here that there are not enough African Americans who are able to pass the test?  The city of Dayton should come down hard on their public schools.  They should demand to know why the public schools are turning out graduates who cannot pass such a test.  It’s criminal for those schools to keep paying teachers who are not teaching.

     And isn’t the other real problem the values of the African American community at large?  Why aren’t black parents in Dayton pushing their kids to excel?  Why aren’t they giving them the support that they need to succeed in school and to make themselves qualified for a career?  I’m speaking in general terms, of course.  There are undoubtedly many successful African Americans in Dayton and many functional, highly motivated families in that community.  Maybe some of them need to discover the source of these problems and help to fix it.

     Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter.  Maybe it doesn’t matter how many black people are on the police force in Dayton.  As long as all people have the opportunity to serve on the force, mabe it doesn’t matter what the racial makeup of the force is.  Maybe there just aren’t that many African Americans in Dayton who want, really want, to be police officers.  That’s okay.  Nobody should be saying that they have to do that particular job.  It is racist to assume that white people would not treat everyone fairly as police officers.

     Those who read my blog regularly will not be surprised at my conclusion.  If African Americans in Dayton want to be police officers, then they should do what it takes to qualify.  The burden of responsibility is ultimately on them.  They shouldn’t let the city dumb down the standards in order to allow them to “pass.”  They should feel insulted at the very idea.

Kids and Their Weapons

     These cases always attract my interest.  A boy in Virginia has been suspended from school for shooting plastic beads with a pen case.  When I was a kid we used tiny wads of paper–usually soaked in saliva.  I confess that I have shot them in school at least once.

     The boy should be suspended.  Please, please, please do not accuse me of condoning his behavior.  Adults cannot let disruptive behavior occur in a school setting without some sort of consequences applied to the child.  Such behavior must be discouraged.

     However, the boy was eventually suspended for a whole year, the police were called in, and he was charged with crimes.  It is a bit extreme, don’t you think?

     He was eventually given a ten-day suspension, which seems fair.  The punishment was enhanced when somebody read in the handbook that the consequence for using a weapon in school was a mandatory one-year suspension at the minimum.  In other words, zero tolerance trumps common sense once again.

     A policy approach that was meant to keep kids from gunning down their classmates has become a reason to severely punish kids for acting up a bit–the way almost every kid has acted up from time to time.

     In addition to my aforementioned crime of shooting spit-wads, I once shot rubber bands at a classmate when I was in high school.  I think that she fired first.  We both got a short detention, and the teacher giggled about the incident.  She had to punish us, and we accepted our fate humbly, but the teacher was sincerely amused by our antics.  I would be too if I saw a highschooler doing such a thing.

     Who’s right?  Should the Virginia boy have been suspended for a whole year?  Should he have been charged with crimes? 

     A law enforcement officer said in regard to the boy’s charges, “Assault is assault is assault.”  Really?  So a boy blowing a plastic BB at somebody is the same as conking them over the head with a tire iron?  I don’t know if the officer has children, but I wonder how she would feel if her own child got a bit carried away and did such a thing.

     I think that one problem is that we no longer expect parents to discipline their kids.  In my day, you would get a suspension or a detention for such a thing, and your parents (at least my parents) would make your life so miserable that you would think long and hard about acting up again.  Well, you would at least try harder not to get caught next time.  If it happened in public, the police might escort you home, and you would get what-for.  What has changed?

Freedom to Carry a Knife?

     In a case in which freedom of religion clashes with school safety, what is a school to do?  In Michigan a Sikh community is trying to persuade their local school to allow students to carry the ceremonial dagger at school.  Apparently it is a religious requirement.

     I’m not sure what to say.  Schools certainly have a strong interest in banning weapons. 

     On the other hand, students have access to things that they could use as weapons all day long.  A desk could be deadly if a student were to pick it up and strike another student with it.  Even a pair of scissors in the art room could do the trick if if were jabbed in the right place.  So, rules against weapons do seem a bit naive.

     So, is it any more dangerous to allow Sikh students to carry a dagger that functions as a religious symbol than not to allow them to do so?  I don’t really think so. 

     Of course, if there is a rule against weapons, and all public schools have those rules, then students should comply with them.  The Sikh families will either have to make peace with the boys not carrying the Kirpans to school, or they will have to establish alternative schooling for them. 

     What is your view?