Writing Up a Cliff

writing up a hill

May 9, 2013

I’m a professional writer.

That means that I make my living through my knowledge of the writing process, my own writing, and my paycheck hinges on my ability to communicate through little symbols on paper.

Not everyone is a professional writer. And I know this.

Most of my students learn as much writing as is needed to write reports, essays, or applications. That’s fine. I do, however, expect them to try and learn basics like sentence structure and critical thinking skills. Over the years, I’ve had students who learned barely enough to do this. They complained, year after year, that writing was hard, but they never made the effort to change that.

Recently, though, I helped a new student.

While she’s an English Language Learner, she’s from South America, meaning she doesn’t have the tether other ELL students have by having Mexico so close. As such, she had to deal not only with a new language, but also with cultural adaptation. Her first essays months ago were choppy, barely-legible series of sentences. She wasn’t dumb. Far from it. She could speak well enough, though it took some translation to get her ideas across. As she continued to visit us, though, and as I tutored her a few more times, I noticed a definite improvement in her writing.

Her last session with me was her reflective essay on how she’s improved as a writer. It was actually a well-written essay and had a line that I’ll never forget.

“I still think of writing as climbing up a hill, but at least I get a great view when I finish.”

That right there is the sentiment I wish EVERY student held close.

The writing process, like I’ve written before, is HARD. I’m not sure many writers actually enjoy the process, but we all love the final product. It also highlights the kind of attitude I wish more people would foster.

Yes, the ride may be rough. Yes, you’re not going to have a blast pouring over notes. Yes, the headaches and lost free time suck.

But guess what? You’re better for it at the end. I hear so many students complaining about this or that being hard. They don’t have enough time. They have too much to study and it piles on later.

Wake up earlier. Learn to make quick meals. Make a schedule.

None of these things are particularly fun, but I’d rather have a little annoyance spread out over my day than one HUGE problem later. Good grades, or whatever the goal may be, don’t just arrive at your doorstep. They wait for you. I didn’t decide to wait to just meet some publisher who would give me a huge advance so I could sit and calmly write my book. I’m working part time and taking odd teaching jobs so I could write it as I saw fit. And that’s what she and other students have done. They’ve taken the initiative.

Few things in life get handed to you. The things you really want? You have to go after them yourself.

Tell the Story, but not the Whole Story

Yes, I'm sure the music's great, but we don't need every lyric to hear the song.
Yes, I’m sure the music’s great, but we don’t need every lyric to hear the song.

January 15, 2013

When does a story end? For that matter, when does it start?

One of the big problems I always have when I’m writing something is that I’m never quite certain where I should start the story. There’s also the matter of what parts of the story itself I want to show. I have images of specific events, specific scenes, but I always have to snake back to them, find out how we got there. Take the current science fiction story, “Lights of Pegasus,” I’m writing for later this month.

The basic story is that a research team has been dispatched to a distant star system where ships mysteriously disappear. The only person to ever leave came out insane and his ship was never found. Eventually, the new crew find that they are hallucinating and some are taking these as omens of a higher power, perhaps God, trying to warn them off.

The Church by *thebrokenview on deviantART

The original draft began with Sumiko Wright, the protagonist, attending a sermon given by the last ship’s survivor, Ulrich, now turned into a self-described prophet. My original draft actually included a fair amount of the sermon, a speech that set the stage for the setting and the dilemmas in the second third of the tale. However, after careful rewrites, I cut out everything and just started with the closing statements.


Because it really did feel like a sermon. Yes, the information got across and yes, you did learn a lot about Ulrich, but seeing as how he only appears in that first scene, it felt like a cheat. After all, this was Sumiko’s story. She and the rest of the crew were going into what was dubbed the new Bermuda Triangle.

And that brought another problem.

This is a short story, less than 10,000 words. How much can I show of these characters (Aguilar, Keri, Ericson, and James) and still get the right effect and keep the story moving? After all, having too many people and having too much background will bog the story down.

hallucination by ~kudrett on deviantART
Eventually, I decided that the hallucinations would be primarily seen from Sumiko’s point of view, but one or two others would hesitantly describe their own experiences. Hearing them second-hand, I felt, would mimic Sumiko’s own reluctance to accept that something possibly supernatural was happening. After all, up until she starts seeing devastated cities and hearing crying children, everything in the story is pretty hard SF.

Well, except for the hyperspace jumps. Hey, I needed a quick FTL mode of travel for this story to work, after all.

While others will eventually see the hallucinations, I’m deciding to really just go into detail with Sumiko and only hint at what the others are seeing. Since this is a science fiction story, I have enough to worry about when it comes to the science part and making sure the world is understandable.

More updates and writing stories to come! Stay tuned, and if anyone has any tips or ideas for a Shadowrun game, comment below. I’ll be running my first one this week and would appreciate ideas or situations.

Shadowrun Suspects Wallpaper by ~KlausScherwinski on deviantART

Students Without Rules?

Anarchists! Every last one of them!

August 27, 2012

We’re back!

Well, by “we,” I mean “me.” It’s just one person behind the sleek internet experience you are, uhm, experiencing right now.

Let’s start with why one local school district just failed an English class.

Here in Laredo, Texas, schools will no longer have rules. No, that’s too negative. We can’t have teachers telling kids not to do things. It’d be like setting boundaries and stunting their growth. We can’t have that! Instead, the United Independent School District of Laredo, Texas will now implement “expectations.”

For example, instead of “No running in the hallways,” our students will now be encouraged with statements like, “Our students walk down the halls.”

You get it? It’s positive reinforcement. The kids will do better because they have freedom and can do whatever they want while at the same time feeling shame when they don’t meet “expectations.”

Student by ~mirchiz on deviantART

I really hope I don’t have to tell you why this is a dumber idea than Kim Kardashian thinking she can have a music career. Or Snooki thinking she should be a mother. This is stupid, and I know why the district is doing it. Ever since the Penn State scandal broke, schools have gone ape trying to make sure they don’t do anything that might make a child feel uncomfortable. We have to make sure kids have a great time at all costs. I understand the need for proper training, though. I had to undergo training for dealing with minors. It included signs to watch out, for that may indicate abuse in the home or even at work. It included the chain of supervisors that needed to be notified of such signs. It also laid out in very clear language the kinds of things that were expected of me as an employee of a public education institution. And I learned a few things I didn’t know…

But the idea that kids can do fine with “expectations” but not rules is fucking stupid.

Let me put it this way. Are there consequences for not meeting “expectations?” I’m sure there are, so in the end, what we have is “rules” by another name. An expectation reminds me too much of that scene from Office Space. You know the one.

office space by ~WolfsEye157 on deviantART

There’s a big gap between personal drive and what is expected at work. A student will follow “expectations” as long as said expectations are easy. Kids, I’m sorry to say, with very few exceptions, are not motivated to learn on their own. It’s the same problem of “unschooling” I talked about almost two years ago. A child has no incentive to follow an “expectation” unless he or she wants to follow it.

On a larger scale, it’s the same problem I have with Objectivism and libertarianism: the idea that we can have near-total anarchy and people will comport themselves because it is expected of them. Let me be blunt. People are morons. People are selfish. Companies have no incentive to be humanitarian if they can corner the market and keep making money at the expense of others. Students, likewise, have no incentive to follow a suggestion if there are no consequences.

I’ll be damned if I ever tell my students that I “expect” them to pay attention. Oh, no, buddy. They will pay attention or suffer my creative wrath. After I told them I wanted them to stop leaning back on the back two legs of their chairs, I made it clear it wasn’t a suggestion. This was an order.

If I saw anyone lean back, I would get behind them, grab their chair, and pull them back just enough to make think they were about to fall. There was a consequence. I was not asking them. I was telling them.

Rules exist for a reason. Unfair, unjust rules, must be fought, of course. A rule must have a purpose. Replacing all rules with “expectations”? That’s just asking for trouble. Eventually, a good student won’t have to be told to cheat or run in the halls. Until then?

They’re still kids.

Now, let’s clear our heads with one of the later episodes of MST3K and a personal favorite of mine: Space Mutiny.

Laredo Students, Listen Up

This is your load of expectations from me, your teacher. Wear a cup.

April 12, 2012

I make no secret out of the fact that I can’t stand stupidity. Stupidity, as I define the term, is willful ignorance. This can be either not wanting to learn something you need to know or simply ignoring what has been established as reliable information. Not everyone can know everything. I know this. I’m ignorant of cellular biology mostly because it’s not something that I’ve had to learn in my career, for example. I know enough to know what cells are and how they work, but I couldn’t name all the parts of the cell and their functions if I tried.

That being said, I do expect my students to at the very least pay attention and learn what they need to learn from me so they can become better writers.

Writing may seem like an easy class or something you just have to take for the sake of getting that credit, but it’s more important than that. I’m going to speak specifically about the experience I’ve had in Laredo, Texas over the last six years, but I’m sure teachers in other parts of the country can attest to what I’ve seen and heard.

Students, listen up.

Wisdom by ~MothersHeart on deviantART

You have a LOT of options. If you decide you want to get the most out of your schoolwork, ask questions. Talk to professors, tutors, instructors, anyone and everyone who can help you. You’re supposed to learn critical thinking. It’s not about memorizing facts. Anyone can learn basic sentence structure. It takes creativity and critical skills to make a poem, though.

That being said, I’d appreciate it if some students would please at least work on the appearance of giving a crap. This doesn’t apply to everyone. Don’t take it that way, please. I’ve had wonderful students, both as a writing consultant and an instructor. I’d say most of my students are either curious to learn or genuinely didn’t know that they didn’t know they didn’t know something.

I don’t even have to forgive that. There’s nothing to forgive.

What I can’t forgive is the student who is told how to do something, in various ways, and refuses to do so out of sheer laziness or a misplaced sense of wisdom grown from years of being a teenager. I’m sure writing Facebook posts made you learn all kinds of fun emoticons, but your other instructors and I did a little more work learning our trade.

Even worse is the student that knows he or she can do better but does just enough work to get by? That’s insulting. I put in good work to teach a class. I use videos, music, and anything and everything to make the learning experience stick. If I have to come in dressed as a hobbit, damn it, I will come in dressed as a hobbit if I think it will help. I put 100% into every class.

And I know my students have resources. You have the internet, tutoring centers, office hours, and your teachers. There is NO reason to not try. It’s not like there are no options.

Let me put it this way. Three years ago, I taught a Developmental English class. Basically, the students in that class did not have the necessary writing skills to enter the university, but the university let them in on the condition that they pass said class. In other words, they didn’t meet minimum requirements, and the school let them slide if they improved WHILE THEY STARTED TAKING CLASSES.

For the most part, the class went well. Then, I gave a simple homework assignment that could have been done in two hours. Four people turned it in.

I let them have it. Let me paraphrase what I told them…

Anger by ~velinov on deviantART

How DARE you not try? How dare you walk into a class, unprepared, and expect me to respect you? You didn’t meet the requirements to enter this institution, and yet we have policies, and an entire department, devoted to whipping you into shape to make it as a productive member of this school so you can learn and earn the degree you need to pursue your career… and you have the BALLS to walk into MY class, without your work, and expect me to teach you?

I don’t know everything, but I know this. I have three simple rules in every class I’ve ever taught: give me your best, respect everyone in the room, and do not interrupt me. You break the first two at the same time? We have problems.

School costs money. If you’re not paying for it, you’ve got loans, grants, or your parents are paying for it. Someone is bleeding money so you can study. How dare you not try? It’s not like the resources aren’t there. Sure, some subjects are harder for some people than others, but at least try.

Like I’ve said before… if you stop trying, you lose. Simple as that.

Now get back out there and show me, and every other educator you’ve ever had, that you at least give a damn.

You don’t buy a diploma when you enter college. You buy the opportunity to earn one. At least make an effort to pretend you care.

And to those of you that DO care and try… you make my day every time I sit with you and see how much you’ve learned. To all of you, thank you.

You’re the students that make teaching worthwhile. Keep it up.

Now enjoy one of the most epic pieces of music from one of the most epic songs of the last decade…

The War on Halloween

Yeah, that's me in Joker make-up. I made the paper, too! For non-criminal reasons!

October 25, 2011

As if the stupid War on Christmas wasn’t enough, Fox now thinks there’s a War against Halloween. I guess pulling out of Iraq left them wanting combat of some sort, so let me indulge them.

The Fox story goes something like this. Schools are banning Halloween celebrations because they don’t want kids eating candy and they want to not exclude anyone who doesn’t believe in the celebration, i.e. immigrants. But allow me to let Ren and Stimpy here to say it far more stupidly than I ever could.

This, of course, ignores various points. Let me go over them rapid-fire style.

The schools are banning candy to help kids eat healthier.

The celebrations are not being banned. They’re being moved to after-school so the parties won’t disrupt classes.

Likewise, kids can still wear costumes, but so as not to distract from valuable class time, the kids may wear the costumes after school.

Some of the kids cannot afford costumes because of tough economic situations, and this led to hurt feelings and isolation. Worrying about other people’s feelings is NOT a liberal conspiracy. It’s called basic human decency.

Now let me get to the one major point of contention for me.

Dia De Los Muertos by ~Mastowka on deviantART

Immigrants are offended by Halloween? If anything, I think Halloween is TAME by the standards of most immigrants. Take me for instance. I come from a culture that doesn’t celebrate Halloween, but instead has a holiday where we lay out altars dressed in food, flowers, and booze so the spirits of our dead relatives can visit us. We INVITE the ghosts in. Little Timmy in his Situation costume? Lame. We deal with real ghosts.


The only reason I can assume an immigrant would be offended or feel left out by Halloween is if he or she did not know what it was. Seeing things like spirits and magic treated like a kid’s game might be offensive to some who hold on to beliefs that treat them as real, and I’m sure a lot of pagans and Wiccans take offense to things like the portrayal of witches. The celebration’s spread around the world, though it’s only here in the States that it seems to have attained the kind of holy reverence once reserved for Christmas. Halloween is not some sacred rite here. It’s a fully commercialized day where kids get hopped up on sugar, get to play dress-up, and women are made to dress like pseudo-hookers.

cute halloween by *pronouncedyou on deviantART

War on Halloween? Please. If we immigrants are somehow tainting the purity of this Americanized pagan harvest observance, it’s only because we know what the season is really about.

And now, in an effort to make you think nothing but good thoughts, here’s Michael Winslow doing Led Zeppelin with only his sound effects and a guitar. This is the sound of pure, distilled awesome.

How to Rewire Your Brain

Show here? Brain power!

October 5, 2011

Even though the Weekly Muse kind of fell through (I plan on bringing it back, though), I used a similar exercise with my ESL students.

For example, after going over the week’s vocabulary and grammar lesson, I usually ask random students to use one of the new words in a sentence. For their test this week, though, I had them do something different. We practiced first, so don’t worry. They weren’t caught unprepared.

I gave them TWO vocabulary words and they had to use it, along with either an adjective, adverb, or preposition (my choice) in a SINGLE sentence. The words could be odd mixes like “bean” and “fur.” It was their job to make sense out of the ideas. Why would I do something so seemingly sadistic, you may add?

Ever seen Chopped? Chefs compete by making dishes with mystery ingredients. Usually, one of the ingredients is a bit… odd. They might be asked to make a desert with ingredients like corn flour, raspberries, and sardines, for example. Check out the following scene for a better idea of what they do.

In many ways, it’s harder than Iron Chef. In Iron Chef, yes, you have to come up with several dishes that feature one secret ingredient, but on Chopped, you have to combine multiple ingredients that oftentimes are not obviously connected. How the hell do you make a main dish when you’re given pork chops, bananas, cilantro, and a small puppy named Earl? A great chef, though, can find the commonality in the food and whip up something extraordinary.

Likewise, I want my students to stop thinking so mechanically. I want them to not only learn the words, but start using them in more than just simple sentences on one topic. Talking and using a language in casual speech is the best way to learn it. It’s the same reason I put such odd things like “Atlantis” and “Mexican restaurant” in the Weekly Muse polls: to encourage people to pick the strangest combinations they can think of. Finding connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts and ideas is what helps the brain think differently.

Take the famous “Sherlock scan” often used by… uhm, Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes by *Hideyoshi on deviantART

All the clues are there. All the parts to put together a sentence, or a story, are present in the world. It’s just a matter of training yourself to find the links and put together something that didn’t exist before. Sherlock doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, though having a background in science and anatomy helps. Likewise, finding links between apparently different words, finding a sentence to use them in, forces my students to find those connections so new words get easier to integrate. They just need the grammatical rules to put their work together.

In essence, using dissimilar topics forces their brain to adapt faster and faster. A time limit for tests also helps.

Now go out and build those neural biceps!

And now, let’s flex those muscles by combining INTENTIONAL comedy with George Lucas’ meddling into our childhood dreams.

Bored or Smart

July 8, 2011

Stress is the fuel of creativity. Either that, or an ulcer.

My personal stress has been compounded by teaching a class of twenty or so middle school stud4ents how to write and think like writers. The first day, as I made painfully aware, involved trying to wrangle some unruly ragamuffins.

I let them know exactly what they were thinking and even got one to shut up about games “being for people with no lives.”

I met my fiancée through Dungeons and Dragons. Natch.

Then, today, I had the biggest shock of my teaching life. One of two kids I had to take aside the first day walked up to me. The class thus far consisted of teaching the parts f speech (nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc.) and the parts of a sentence (subject, verb, object) and today’s class involved watching a very wholesome episode of Bizarre Foods.

It was Puerto Rico.

How Bizarre by ~MitchMerriweather18 on deviantART

A very fine episode, to be sure, and I had previously gone over the parts of the paragraph I wanted them to write go through. I wanted a topic sentence, evidence for why they liked or disliked the show, and an explanation. For example, if they thought it was good, I wanted something like “The show was funny because Andrew was scared when he had to dive into the dark cave. It was wet and he was freaking out.”

Most of them did well. A few of them were still sketchy on the concept of “evidence” and the grammar could have used some work.

Except for one kid.

The first day, I help him back to talk with him. He talks, he looks around, and he barely pays attention. And he got it in one try. I didn’t have to tell him to change anything. He did everything I asked and he barely tried. I could tell form the way he looked at me that he was sure he’d made a mistake.

It’s always a joy to see students realize they’re smarter than they thought.

Epiphany by ~SapphiraTigress on deviantART

Now I have a conundrum. It’s not that lesson is too easy. On the contrary. I’m pushing these kids as far as they’ll go. I’m teaching them like I would a high school or freshman college class. I’m not a behavioral expert. Best guess, the kid may have ADD. It wouldn’t be far-fetched, but it’s not definite. The other option is that he really does know all this stuff, but doesn’t understand he knows it and is just bored.

Either way, I don’t know if I can keep his attention without sacrificing the teaching time for the rest of the class.

I guess the only thing I can do is to try and dial it up just a bit, maybe give him extra work on the side…

And you know what? I’m excited if I get to teach him and help him improve. I’m making him my personal challenge.

blackboard and happy thoughts by ~Husckarl on deviantART

No More Pencils, No More Books

No more teachers... or opportunity, advancement, motivation, and all those nasty things you get from educators.

April 26, 2010

Imagine it…

You wake up. Eat whatever you want. Maybe some cookies and milk. Maybe granola. Instead of rushing off to catch the bus or wondering if you did all your homework, you pick up that novel you were reading and finish it. Maybe you want to go out for a jog. Hey, you planted that garden in the backyard and you need to find information on making sure the crops will make it through the incoming cold front. Better do a little reading.

Welcome to the world of unschooling.

I’m actually surprised I’d never heard of unschooling until recently. Home-schooling is teaching kids at home. Parents become the educators and create or use pre-built curriculum for children to learn as well if not better than they would at public schools. At least, that’s the goal.

Unschooling, on the other hand, is letting the child find his or her own passion and do the learning his or herself. In essence, the child would learn in much the same way a baby learns: through play and exploration. An even more extreme form of unschooling called radical unschooling means that the parents will not even discipline a child in the hopes of not stifling creativity or imposing barriers.

And I want you, my dear reader, to understand the difference between these three philosophies, because this is about unschooling. Not homeschooling.

I have a bit of a problem with it. And by “bit of a problem,” I mean, “Sir, we’ve hit an iceberg. And there are meteors falling on us. And Great Cthulhu has risen and is eating the crew. Just thought you’d like to know.”

Cthulhu’s Approval by ~hwango on deviantART

When I first heard of unschooling, my first thought was, “You’re going to tell kids they can learn whatever they want, whenever they want, at their own pace? And they’ll learn better than formally educated students?”

The hell they will!

Think about it. How many people in this country, or the world for that matter, have the natural curiosity and inclination to just learn at-will? I can count in my hands the number of people I’ve met over the years that might make it through the unschooling system as good if not better than they would fare in the public education system. By giving the child that much responsibility for his or her life, it makes it so that the child will learn nothing unless he or she wants to learn it.

I don’t know about you, but when I was in first and second grade, I wanted to watch Looney Tunes. And that was it. You place that much power in the hands of someone who doesn’t have a clear concept of responsibility and consequences and you’re asking for trouble.

Who is going to do this teaching? A book? The internet? There are certainly people who think that just reading books and going online is enough. I present to you Dan Brown (no relation to the author, I think) who gives a fairly complete look into this philosophy.

Let’s break this down. Schools only teach facts now, but since you can get facts from the internet or from books, you don’t need schools. I’ll admit it’s a great description of a bad school, but even a bad school still forces you to learn things you wouldn’t want to learn on your own. I never had a passion for mathematics. Still don’t really like it, but it’s through math and reading that I found my passion for science, specifically physics and astronomy. I would have missed out on that if I was left to my own devices.

At this point, long-time readers will point out that I have my own set of qualms about the current educational system. Well, yes, I do. I think it’s broken, but even a broken system is better than no system at all. A measure of control is still required to show a student how to learn.

The unschooling crowd proudly yells, however, that you don’t need to know as much as you think. Once you find out what you want to do, you focus on that and there you go. I studied art on my own and have taken only one formal class, yet I think I’ve developed some pretty good skills. The logo on this site, the eye with text, is one of my works.

Randomology by *dagger3000 on deviantART

Sadly, this unschooling argument goes back the level of intellectual curiosity in a student. You can nurture this instinct and good parents can push a child to learn more than the standard curriculum allows. My parents were two such examples, but they are far, far from the norm.

As it stands, unschooling kids suffers from two major drawbacks. First of all, a parent is still required, especially in the younger years. How many families can afford to have one parent at home? If only one makes more than enough to provide for the family, great! Hurdle avoided, but we’re not done yet.

The second problem is that you can’t learn only from books. You do have to go out and experience things. I know unschoolers will say that their kids do go and experience the real world. They can farm, they read, they travel, and they do all the things they love to do. However, what happens when they decide they want to be doctors? Engineers? Who’s going to teach them these professions? How are they going to get into a college, get these kinds of certifications, if they don’t even have a GED? I read everything I could on writing before I got to college. Everything. Once I got to DePauw, however, I realized that knowing all these things did me no good if I didn’t interact with others, share my thoughts with experts, and otherwise learn proper structure before going off and doing whatever I wanted.

I will admit something. The idea that children learn best by play is not a new concept. In fact, I and many other educators embrace it. Whenever possible, I try to make class as fun as possible while still ensuring my students learn. I try not to lecture if I can give the students hands-on examples, activities where they interact with others, share ideas, and discuss. They have to apply themselves, think, put it together themselves with my guidance, and in the end they’ve basically done the same thing they did as babies. They played. And they learned.

But it doesn’t mean that you leave children to their own devices. Children are dumb. They are. I’m sorry if you think your kid is special. This rationale that children want to emulate parents may hold part of the time, but children are children. They don’t want to read a book and learn mathematics. They have to be pushed into learning or they seek out their baser instincts and satisfy only those that give immediate satisfaction.

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Let’s imagine, for a second, that we did embrace the idea of unschooling. Everyone had the chance to do it. How long do you think it would take for a massive gap between the educated and the uneducated? Many people are more motivated than others. Within a generation, we’d have one group of people that can do everything needed to survive and has no incentive to go further. Then we’d have a much smaller population that drove forward and and had the resources to learn from experts.

But that’s good, isn’t it? Those who want to learn will learn and those that don’t stay where they are. Everyone gets what they work for…

Let me be as clear as I can here.

This is perhaps the dumbest idea in the world. And this is coming from a guy that once came up with the idea of a giant gun that fired Ewoks with Jawa tracers.

Quiet. There was bourbon involved.

The bottom line is that a formal education is necessary to both be exposed to different ideas and to push students to learn. We aren’t born with the intuition to just learn. We learn what we can to survive. That’s it. Anything else is extra once we meet basic requirements. I’m all for the rights of the individual, but we can’t possibly know how to learn or even what to learn if we just go out on our own. A few gifted individuals may be able to do this, but we’re not all geniuses. If we’re not pushed, we don’t get anywhere. Personally, I’d advocate a mixture of the traditional and Learn by Play methods. Implement better teaching strategies and teachers at school, but also make sure parents get involved. The idea that forcing a child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do will somehow crush the spirit is ridiculous. If you were told “no” when you were a child and lost the will to achieve later in life… I’m sorry, but look at your priorities.

The educational system is broken. I’ll be the first to admit it and get behind efforts to make it better, but to say that you need to just take your kids completely out of formal, structured schools is the educational equivalent of an auto-immune disorder.

Sorry, but until we make some fundamental changes in the ways parents work with kids and kids themselves learn, unschooling will be the equivalent of Lupus.

Son of Texas Will Make Your Kids Stupid: Part 2

Remember: The Ministry of Truth is watching you to make sure you learn only party-approved facts.

April 12, 2010

The article regarding Texas’ change in history and social studies books got a lot of attention from regular readers and others who only read that one article after it was forwarded to friends of friends and others in the educational field. Recently, though, I got into a bit of a debate on Facebook about some of the points in the article.

The mighty battle raged across the internet. Entire forums fell before the apocalyptic clash of ideas. Fields of code burned while we fought an intellectual battle with every weapon at our disposal. A valkyrie flew over us and waited to take the fallen to the glory of Valhalla…

At least, that’s how I want to remember a spat over several Facebook posts that I actually got so involved in that I kept waiting for this guy’s responses. Sometimes I swear the internet is like cocaine-laced chocolate served by Salma Hayek.

Anyway, my opponent raised several points, but he failed to convince me, and for good reason. They’re some of the same points I’ve heard throughout college and in many debates over what to teach students. On the surface, some of these arguments made me pause… except that I quickly remembered why they were wrong.

Keep in mind that these are paraphrased from the original discussion.

1) If you don’t like the school, just send your kid to another school.

Sorry, but no dice. This assumes that every family can afford private school or home-schooling. Even if you moved a student to another district, this won’t change the curriculum since ALL public schools must follow the same rules and teach the same things the state mandates. Even if, somehow, you have the option and the will to just move to another state with better standards, these changes in the Texas textbooks will leak into other states in the next few years anyway.

It’s like trying to escape a zombie plague by moving to another town. Eventually, the brain-eating aberrations are going to come after you.

2) People are smarter than you give them credit for. When faced with lies and propaganda, people can think critically and make their own informed decisions.

Which is, I’m sure, why propaganda has never been an effective tool of governments, religions, and other groups, right?

Propaganda is dangerous because it mixes lies with truth and half-truths. When you appeal to a person’s emotions first, then back it up with facts, you’ve already led that person to a predetermined decision. Thinking critically is useless if you don’t have the right information. It’s as simple as that. If you were to raise a generation of students on the fertilizer-worthy material in the new Texas curriculum, you could have the wisest of the wise, real Doogie Howser/ Einstein clones, but if they’re cooking with urinal cakes, you can’t make much.

Learning the “truth” later becomes a struggle. People who fervently believe Obama was born outside the United States, for example, hold on to that belief so much that even after it’s been proven by third parties that he was born in this country, they refuse to believe it. Their reality is different, so anything that conflicts with that reality must be fake.

Media Propaganda by ~Trosious on deviantART

3) People like you are just as bad as the Texas Board of Education. You believe you know how others should raise their children. The other side probably thinks your kids are just as brainwashed.

I’m going to award half a point for this one. I do, in fact, believe I know how others should raise their children. Parents need to raise children that can function within society and can grow into productive adults. The purpose of school is to teach a broad group of students something they can use in the real world. It is not to promote agendas or teach people what to think, but how to think.

As for brainwashing, the term specifically applies to mind control, the unethical coercion of a person in order to make him or her believe something. Essentially, the person has lost the choice. Whether it’s parents or teachers, no one has the right to force a belief on anyone else. If we present a broad, accurate depiction of events, we can analyze, debate, and argue the point.

We cannot argue, for example, whether or not the United States actually dropped a nuke on Japan. Willfully denying information and misleading a child is evil.

Yes, I said it.

It’s evil. By taking away the ability to choose by using false information, you have taken away the most basic freedom. Without choice, everything else falls apart. So, yes, I do believe I know how people should raise their kids. Be honest with them. If you have to lie to make them believe something you believe in, look at your own beliefs first.

A Clockwork Orange by ~TayterTots on deviantART

4) Fighting for federal standards like this is just like fighting for Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth. It’s ALL propaganda.

Again, I’m not advocating liberal OR conservative teaching of history. I’m advocating a free forum where someone with an education imparts facts onto students, then teaches students how to analyze those facts and come to their own conclusions. Going back to the example above, I once took a class whose sole purpose was the debate of whether the United States was justified in dropping two nukes on Japan.

No one in the class debated the facts. Some were contested facts, such as reports before the attack that said nuking Japan was unnecessary. After the war, other reports came out claiming the nukes were necessary to save millions of American lives. These reports are real. What we had to figure out, as historians and students, was whether there was any racial bias against the Japanese. Did the second reports come out after the fact as justification? Where they simply adjusted figures based on new intelligence?

A bad class would have been one in which we were simply told we had to drop the bomb. End of story. A good class is one where the act is mentioned.

Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas after the Vikings beat him to it. This act also led to the genocide of the natives. All facts, all relevant. No mention of Columbus’ intents. If there are records from the man himself on what he wanted to do, a teacher could use these, but facts are facts.

I do, however, want to point something out. This mentality that schools indoctrinate students into certain ways of thinking is much more prevalent in the social and art programs. Science courses such as physics, biology, chemistry, and such don’t have this because their disciplines must, by their very natures, change with new information and emotion has no bearing on scientific observations. English and philosophy, for example, can be highly subjective. Even if one person believes the Earth is a few billion years old and another thinks it was made in six days, both scientists will agree that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen.

As an aside, bringing up the Ministry of Truth when I want schools to show facts is akin to saying I’m like Ghengis Khan because I give to the Salvation Army. The Ministry of Truth was involved with the willful alteration of records to present political ideology in a positive light. It changes facts and presents a narrative that paints the world a certain way.

1984 by ~venomalienz on deviantART

5) You can’t present ALL the ideas. Do you devote 50% of the time to the religious ideology and 50% to the secular? How much time do you devote to Buddhism, Druidism, or Islam?

Once again, I am not saying that we need to teach students everything. No university would make the claim its English department covers all possible aspects of literature. No Physics department would claim to cover every specialization from particle physics to quantum theory.

It’s not a question of devoting time to every argument and ideology because, quite frankly, not every ideology is equal in its impact on American society. Christianity, for example, should be heavily discussed because it has had a profound impact on many aspects of American society and is a driving force in modern politics. I doubt a history class, though, would spend too much time covering things like Shintoism or Druidism. While these may be mentioned and briefly explained, in the context of American history, they have not been as prominent as other movements.

Again, you can study these once you reach an academic level where you specialize in such groups, but a public school cannot go over everything. No one is advocating such a thing. What I want is a comprehensive overview, and the ideas that do get presented are presented because of the tangible effect they have on society. It’s not a popularity contest.

Imperial Texas Flag by ~GeneralHelghast on deviantART

6) Debating what the government should teach children does very little to actually educate children, but it does line the pockets of politicians and unions.

Wrong. Debating what public schools teach children is at the CORE of educating children. We have a system in place that says that all children must attend school. Why? Because we believe school, education, the learning facts and the knowledge to apply said facts and think critically are important traits. What and how these kids get taught is the FIRST thing we need to decide. Still think it’s a waste of time?

I think we should stop voting for representatives in Congress because those elections don’t pass laws. I also think we shouldn’t go the doctor because that consult doesn’t instantly cure my headache.

they’re selling make believe by =scarredbutnotbroken on deviantART

7) It’s indoctrination, no matter how way you shape it. You just want to indoctrinate them to what you want to do.

Actually… I do. I want to indoctrinate them into the Church of Use Critical Thinking to Analyze Reality in an Unbiased Manner Before Making Knee-Jerk Reactions, or CUCTARUMBMKJR.

We’re still working on the name.

This kind of argument assumes that everything has a political point of view, but science isn’t about philosophies and who you vote for. It seeks to describe. That’s it. When Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, he didn’t do it from some radical anti-religion agenda. The observations he made in the Galapagos Islands led to a new branch of science that explains speciation, adaptation, and provides a history of life on this planet that excludes the Garden of Eden.

As Stephen Colbert said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

I’ve said it a dozen times now, but a school is not a place for political indoctrination. There are, however, several unavoidable facts. The Catholic Church engaged in crusades against unbelievers. Democrats failed to successfully use their majority in Congress over the last few years to pass significant reform. Radical Islam uses terror tactics both in the Middle East and here at home.

All facts… and they must be discussed in context and with an appropriate respect for academic discussion. A good educator cannot presume to give his or her take on the ideologies involved. I’ve been asked for my take on certain topics during class, and if I decide it would serve a purpose such as providing a particular perspective for an essay, I share my point of view with the very clear understanding that it is an opinion and they are in no way obligated to agree with me.

Indoctrination by ~chaos-of-fire on deviantART

When I say that I am against the changes in the Texas curriculum, it’s not because I want a liberal view of history. That would be equally terrible. I want students to have enough information and the right training to critically think about the issues. If they change their minds and become liberal, fine. If they think on all the facts and remain where they are, at least they were given the choice to look at as many ideas as possible.

Basically you can tell me that Jesus was betrayed by one of his apostles. Like Dylan once said, though “You’ll have to decide whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.”