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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Let the Great Excel

In modern education, we spend ninety percent of our time and energy on those who aren't quite up to the mark. Granted, we have far too many such students. Still, those at the top of the class are often ignored, used as peer helpers, or simply given "busy work". This is not because teachers do not care about them; trust me, we appreciate them with every fiber of our being. It's simply that in these days of accountability and standardized exams, we aren't given the sort of academic freedom that would allow us to cater to these students as we'd like to do.

I'm one of the lucky few who has been able to teach a class full of gifted students. I'll never forget it; it was a teacher's dream. My seventh graders were introduced to Poe on day one, as we began reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was able to see them grow from shock and fear at the unexpected complexity of the material (they'd never been challenged in this way before) to appreciation for the nuances and depth of the text. We shifted from Poe to Aristotle, reading from several of his tomes and exploring the basis of Western thought, the ideas we all take for granted but which, at that time, were fresh and new to the world. During the 2004 election cycle, we held debates after examining what makes a rational argument. Students were encouraged to call students out for using ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, or engaging in other fallacies.

We began the year with one student testing at a college reading level, and ended with over ten. The growth was phenomenal. Every student completed a research paper complete with footnotes and a bibliography done in MLA style. I was able to do all of this while also teaching the same grammar and social studies standards that every other seventh grader was receiving. Why? All of my students were above average. Grouping them into an environment in which all were expected to excel encouraged them. Even those who were previously shy flowered not only academically but also socially, as who in this class could make fun of them for being smart?

This is what happens when we allow our best to shine. I'm sad to report that the experiment only lasted two years. Still, the students who were part of it describe it as something they will never forget.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Vigilante or Vigilant Citizen?

At what point does an American citizen no longer have the right to enforce the law? I recall being informed as a youth that if I witnessed a crime being committed, I had the right to intervene and make a citizen's arrest. I actually participated in one once as I saw a bicycle thief riding off on a friend's bike; we all jumped out of his mother's car, grabbed the kid, made sure it was the right bike (as opposed to one that just looked the same), and took it back. This happened because a day or so after the theft, someone witnessed a kid riding the bike around town. Did we enforce or break the law? My friend's mother called the police and held onto the thief until they came. I assume she was doing the right thing.

Later on in life, while training for a job as a security officer, I was advised that as long as I witnessed the crime in person and stated out loud the crime I was arresting for, I could make a citizen's arrest (at least as long as I was physically able to detain the suspect). In fact, the trainer stated that he'd arrested several people, putting a couple into the hospital who had resisted arrest, and he'd been fine legally. He said he'd had to go to court, but that he'd been acquitted because he was legally in the right.

Now, a security guard puts himself in the role of vigilante to a certain degree. He patrols areas where crimes are likely to happen. (If they weren't, it wouldn't be worth hiring a guard.) When a crime occurs, his job is to either prevent it or to respond in such a manner as to preserve life and property. We were informed that we had no special authority to do these things; we were acting under the same authority as any other private citizen.

Hence my question: If a person were to patrol crime-ridden areas, and attempt to arrest those committing crimes that he had personally witnessed (making sure to state so clearly while making the arrest), would it be legal? I can see no reason against it. Maybe that's what we need in our urban areas-- a dose of vigilante justice. If the locals took the law into their own hands, operating within the limits of their authority as private citizens, they could easily clean up the streets. When I lived in Ecuador, just such a scenario occurred. A neighborhood thug, known around town for dealing drugs and murder, finally pushed the community too far one night when he broke into a house and raped some one's daughter.

The neighborhood was outraged. They got together, entered the man's house, and tried to take him. He fought, and they fought back quite fiercely; he was beaten unconscious. They were about to set fire to his house, with him still inside, when cooler heads prevailed. He was arrested, and, as far as I know, never returned to that area again.

Why don't we do that here? We're too afraid that we, those who just want to live in safety and peace, will be punished more than those who threaten us and our families. Is that fear based in reality? I don't know. From my perspective, punishing those who defend their community from criminals is just plain wrong. A community has the right to defend itself. Isn't that what the Second Amendment is all about?

If you have some knowledge on this subject, please leave a comment. I'd really appreciate it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Fight Over Appearances: Hillary vs. Barack

Is there really any difference between the things Hillary Clinton wants to accomplish and the things Barack Obama hopes to do? Let's compare their various campaign promises and see...

Both promise to create a federally-funded health care system similar to those of Canada and the United Kingdom.

Both promise to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Both would increase entitlement spending (i.e. welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.).

Both would appoint federal judges who would take a very loose view of the Constitution, interpreting in any way that might promote social upheaval.

Both are essentially socialists, whose goal is for the government to encroach on the business sector as much as possible with the ostensible goal of "helping the little guy" (who always seems to get screwed over by this help somehow).

Both want to diminish the role of Christianity in the public sector, viewing with disdain those who still hold sacred the Bible-based traditions that forged our society and our nation.

Both have demonstrably lied (or "misspoken", as Hillary would put it) to the public several times during their campaigns.

Both have been cozy with known terrorists and terrorist-linked groups and individuals.

Both promise that they will raise our taxes, as if the current economic malaise wasn't hitting us hard enough as it is.

My question is: What's the difference? Sure, one would be the first black president, and one would be the first female president. So? Let's face it, after the inauguration ceremony, it won't matter whether the president has mammaries or a high melanin count. The only thing that will matter is what he or she plans to do with the power granted by the American voter.

I've just listed out for you the plans and promises of the candidates, which are identical. The campaign battle isn't about who'd govern best. It's about who can project the best image. Obama, who has The Audacity of Hope, wants to out-image Hillary, wife of the "man from Hope" (Arkansas). As Rush Limbaugh says, with Democrats it's always a matter of symbolism over substance. That makes sense; let's face it, if it were just up to the substance, nobody would vote for either of them!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Eenie, Meenie, Mynie, Moe... Who will McCain Pick?

While most of the media have concentrated on the ongoing battle between Barack and Hillary, the conservatives of the country are more interested in just whom McCain will choose as his running mate. While I doubt John McCain will pay any attention to my suggestions, I'll make them anyway; it couldn't hurt.

The choice of a vice presidential candidate must be made with two particulars in mind: ability and politics. First, could this person run the country well in the event such becomes necessary? Let's face it-- John McCain is no spring chicken, and any vice president might well be called upon to take up the mantle of actually running the country. This makes the choice of a running mate not only aesthetically important, but also important in terms of the fate of the nation. I see only two Republicans who would be up to the job: Condoleeza Rice and Mitt Romney.

Both are geniuses. Both have a lot of experience making executive-level decisions. Both are respectable people, moralists, and have a degree of common sense. Just as importantly, both have the ability to communicate effectively, a trait not seen from the White House in the last eight years but which is of vital importance when it comes to motivating the people to get behind an administration.

Politically speaking, each of the two has something to offer McCain in the general election. Romney would more than likely get out the conservative vote, having been the choice of most conservatives in the Republican primary. Many of us still resent McCain for the dirty tricks he used to break Romney's momentum, and although Romney has been quite forgiving about that, we still harbor resentment over the issue. Moreover, making Romney the vice president would put him in line to be the logical nominee after McCain, which would be a good thing, at least from the conservative perspective. We would vote the ticket just to set our guy up for later.

Rice, despite what the tin-foil-hat wearing crowd will tell you, is one of the most favorably viewed figures in politics today. A good many Republicans were very disappointed that she didn't throw her hat into the ring this election. Personally, I believe that the presidency was hers for the taking; she just didn't want it yet. A vice presidential nomination, on the other hand, changes that perspective. She wouldn't be the focus of the same degree of scrutiny as would a presidential nominee-- the insults would be directed toward McCain. She has no thirst for power, but she wants to contribute. A vice presidency would be the perfect forum for such a contribution. Her nomination would also split at least two of the Democrats' key constituencies, bringing over a lot more of the much sought "undecided" vote. The only difficulty would be convincing her to take the offer.

Perhaps never in the history of the United States has the choice for vice president been so important. Let's hope McCain makes a good one.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hillary in the Midwest: Maybe a Snowball's Chance...

Passing one of the main thoroughfares in Fort Wayne, Indiana today, I noticed a newspaper photographer with a large camera pointed across the street. Naturally, my eyes followed her vista, and a small crowd (seven, to be exact) of Hillary Clinton supporters were standing on the street corner holding two large signs: "Honk for Hillary." I soon came to a stop at the intersection, and though I could hear one of the Hillary volunteers shouting her desire for some participation from the surrounding cars, there was none whatsoever. Now, I'm not exaggerating in the least. Not one car honked its horn. Considering the length of time I was sitting at that light, approximately two minutes, that is amazing. I've been at teacher pay raise demonstrations that got a lot more support than that, and that was on a quieter street in a much smaller town.

Obama, on the other hand, has a lot more support in Fort Wayne. The local colleges are full of Priuses with his sticker plastered all over them (right alongside the little fish-with-legs emblems and the "abort them all, let Darwin sort them out" bumper stickers). Heck, driving through the ghetto today, I'd say one in three lawns had a "vote Obama" sign on it. If Fort Wayne is at all representative of the rest of Indiana, Barack is a lock.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Standing in the Shadow of Racism

According to Dinesh D'Souza, America is not a racist nation. He should know, coming from a culture whose caste system stratified society based in large part on lines of color, even down to the "Untouchables". It is true that racism exists in small pockets, yet the reaction of mainstream society to its presence is not one of welcome but of disgust. White America, especially, is burdened by an undue sense of guilt over race. We fear being under sensitive, lest we offend. We fear being oversensitive, betraying the obvious fact that we do recognize what the people around us look like. Nearly all white people in America consider the races equal, and frankly, we're tired of beating a dead horse over the issue. Still, the issue of race casts a cloud over encounters with our differently-pigmented fellow Americans.

In other words, we fear being seen as racists. We know we aren't, but that doesn't seem to matter in the public arena. It's happened to many of us, at one time or another, and because we see racism as such a low thing, the sting of it is quite sharp. I remember being called a racist because I criticised a rap song that was playing on the radio. Now, I grew up in the era of rap. I had (and listened to death) the early albums of Run DMC, LL Cool J, and the Fat Boys. In my neighborhood, we all used to break out sheets of cardboard or scraps of linoleum and practice break dancing. I know my rap music- what I like, and what I don't. So when my coworker insinuated that I was a racist for criticizing a certain rapper, I took great offense. The end result of this was a decrease in the quality and quantity of conversation between Tyrone and me, largely because I was now afraid that anything I said would be scrutinized as potentially racist.

I think, somewhere in the back of many white people's minds, is just such a nagging concern: "I hope I don't say the wrong thing."

What a relief it would be to trust that we were not guilty by descent, that because some of our forefathers behaved despicably, we were not doomed to suffer eternal scorn for their sins! Racism will not be dead until the concern over racism has perished. With openly hostile bigots such as Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton running around, how is that supposed to happen? When will Dr. King's dream come true? When can I be judged not by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character? Then, once and truly, we will all be free at last.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why Not a Runoff?

We need runoffs in the election process. Think of all of the confusion and hysteria that would be eliminated. There would be no more spoilers (e.g. Nader and Perot). We'd have more people actually speaking their minds, knowing that they no longer have to seek the blandness of the middle road to have a real chance.

Romney would have probably secured the Republican ticket had there been a runoff. He was certainly the main choice of the conservative wing of the Republican party. Only the splitting of the conservative vote cost him the nomination. Hillary would likely have garnered a more secure position, winning the Democratic nomination, if she didn't have to split the pie, so to speak, with John Edwards and the like. We might actually have had a real choice this election, a real dichotomy of opinion rather than a communist (Obama) versus a liberal (McCain), the only difference being the speed of retreat from a war we are winning.

Third parties would benefit from a runoff. You'd never have to worry that your vote for a third party candidate was helping elect someone else. Therefore, more people would take third parties seriously, vastly changing the political landscape and assuring that neither Republicans nor Democrats could take anybody's vote for granted.

Had there been a runoff in place during the 1990's, Bill Clinton would never have been president. Let's face it, the man never garnered anywhere near a majority of the vote. A runoff would have either narrowed the field to a clear choice between Bush and Clinton, with the fiscally-conservative Perot voters going for Bush, or Clinton and Perot, with the Bush voters pushing Perot over the top. Bill Clinton would never have stained the presidency, or Monica's dress for that matter.

Sure it would be a bit costly, but it would be nowhere near as costly as having another tax-gouging spendthrift in office, eager to convert as many Americans as possible into government dependants for the sake of the addict vote. Let's give Americans a clear choice in every election; let's have a runoff!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Education "Crisis"

Why is it that we insist on treating education like the manifestation of some disease? We talk about "curing" it, or "fixing" it, as if there is something inherently wrong with the entire endeavor. This seems to be the kind of politically motivated tripe that bubbles up from the sewers of Washington D.C. every election cycle. Everybody wants to do something, but nobody will really admit the true nature of the problems, such as they are.

First, there is no crisis. Children in 2008 are, on average, doing much more advanced work, especially in science and mathematics, than their parents were at the same age. At my mother's high school, only one student ever made it to trigonometry class, and he had to go to the local college to take it. By the time I was in high school, it was the standard class for juniors to take. Now, at least in California, sophomores are supposed to be taking it. Such progress does not a crisis make.

Language arts is a bird of a different feather, of course. To be brutally honest, the only difference between performance in the 1960's and today has been the tidal wave of immigration. According to census data, the entire growth of the school-age population during the 1990's was due to immigrants or the children of immigrants. These students take, on average, between two and four years just to assimilate enough to be registered in the same classes as their native peers. Once in these classes, they still require (in general) a slower pace of teaching to absorb the material. I don't blame the kids, by the way. They didn't decide to come here on their own. Moreover, having spent a couple of years in a foreign country, I know just how difficult it can be to become proficient (in speaking, reading, and writing) in a new language. The fact remains, nevertheless, that the presence of a large number of students who are new to English is having an impact on the school system. Considering the magnitude of the problem, I'd say schools are doing a miraculous job of coping, though to state that they've dealt with it successfully would be an overstatement.

Yet, with all of these issues on our plate, we compare our scores with Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other nations with hardly any immigration (at least compared to ours), and declare ourselves failures. Did I mention that even the math and science tests that we use for comparisons are written in English? The effect of all of this is that a sizable fraction of our children are measured not by what they know, but by how well they can decipher math and science questions in a foreign language.

In addition, we consider every student's score, regardless of handicap or disability, when we tabulate our data. Other countries don't. Japan considers only the scores of its academically-tracked students; the rest, those whose abilities make them more suited for non-academic careers, don't count against them. In fact, most other nations do similarly. We, in our egalitarian zeal, lump in even those students who, in middle school, can barely fill in a bubble (with help) in between having their diapers changed. Sadly, I can only wish I were using hyperbole. Non-English-speakers, even those who arrived in the country less than one year ago, count in our language arts data. Still, our politicians tell us we have failing schools.

Think about your own children. When they bring home math homework, how does it compare to what you were doing at their age? How does the reading material they bring home measure up? Dick and Jane is no longer used; even kindergartners are being exposed to higher-level reading than that (though I still recommend it for preschoolers). If you are a native to this country, your children are likely doing a lot more advanced work than you were at their age. Does this constitute a crisis? Think of that next time you see a news report on our "failing schools." The political and media template is a lie.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mission Statement

The purpose of this blog is to illustrate just how simple our nation's problems would be to solve if a bit of common sense were applied by all parties involved. It's sad to say so, but I believe we'd all be better off just choosing random congresspeople from the checkout line at Home Depot than those we currently have in national office. Real people who do their own repair work have at least some sense of what is likely to make things better and what is likely to make them worse. That is the premise of this blog. I'll be looking at the issues of the day from the point of view of "Joe Sixpack" (although, in my case, that would be a six-pack of Coca-Cola). Enjoy!