on textbooks

8.24.09 by Cypy + 84 comments!

I agonize over the types of textbooks found in high school. Most of them seem to be filled with fluff: a whole lot of sidebars, special sections, extra-enlightenment pages, goal-lists, and so on. Not only that, but most textbooks seem to go out of their way to alert the reader of the wonderful opportunities of the web-powered-empowerment super content that contributes to the learning experience. I don’t need a website to go along with my textbook; I don’t need figures on every page; I don’t need exceptional(ly ugly) colored graphics; I would, on the other hand, like a textbook that is descriptive and well written. I would like something that is insightful, captivates me, and nudges me into thinking about the topic in greater depth.

Given any subject, I would rather have a thirty-page textbook that brings up profound questions about the subject than a thousand-page textbook with a half-ton of data and a half-ton of fluff. My opinions unfortunately contrast with the basic measurements of success for a textbook publisher in the public school setting. A school will buy a textbook that contains all the required material for the course, and if different schools have different required material, a textbook publisher must meet all those needs in order for their book to be popular. Thus, the most popular textbooks are the ones that satisfy the needs of all the schools—those that are bloated and unwieldy.

Textbooks that conform to these school’s demands, also fit well with any teacher’s style. Some teachers may assign readings from the textbooks. Some may only use the problem sets and questions from the textbooks. Some may go off-road with lectures, while others may comfortably rest their entire class schedule and teachings on the textbook’s format.

In short, we have textbooks that are never optimal but always sufficient. I can only think of two ways around this. Students could select their own textbooks based on reviews and ratings from other students (this would empower the people who are learning the material). If students selected their own textbooks, some students might select different textbooks from their classmates. Some might prefer more compendious textbooks, others might enjoy those with a ton of practice problems and examples, while others might prefer textbooks with deep, detailed explanations and less information. This would present a different problem for teachers: they wouldn’t have a unified curriculum. The only way around this problem would be to have students teach themselves from their textbooks. The other option would be to have all the teachers write their own textbooks. A textbook written by the instructor would eliminate all extra fluff from the textbook, and insure that everything taught would be covered in detail in the text. Unfortunately, having all teachers write their own textbooks is also highly impractical.

Shred ties

8.19.09 by Cypy + 91 comments!

I was waiting this afternoon to get a fee-waiver for a standardized test in the delightfully cubic office of my delightfully bland school, sitting on a colorful bench made of wood and painted by students (it seemed) when I happened to glance down, and to the right over my shoulder. A paper shredder stood in the corner by the painted bench on which I was seated. It looked up at me, begging, as if it wanted me to personify it in a blog post. I looked back, and noticed the warning symbols printed on its top. One was a pictorial representation of a human hand being stuffed into the top of the paper shredder. “Don’t do this,” it seemed to say. The next was a pictorial representation of a necktie being fed into the paper shredder. “Don’t do this either,” it seemed to say. “Especially when the necktie is around your neck,” it added.

I considered this warning. Why did the manufacturer decide to add it to the paper shredder? Maybe there have been past incidents. It makes sense. People in offices often wear neckties. People in offices often use paper shredders. This begged the question: why do people in offices wear neckties if they are so dang close to paper shredders all the time?! Ties are uncomfortable. Ties take a long time to tie. Ties flap around uselessly.

My conclusion after minutes of thought, was that ties are a ridiculous fashion but people in offices decide to wear them to work anyway in hopes of “accidentally” getting them caught in the paper shredder, destroying most of the tie, and then using their pocket scissors to free themselves in the nick of time before strangulation becomes a possibility. End of story.

Food Inc: The Movie Review

8.10.09 by Ruth + 83 comments!

Nothing makes me think about what a really good ___________ is like like a truly mediocre __________. Case in point: Food Inc. What I didn’t really think about before going, but should have, because it wasn’t hidden at all, was that Food Inc. was not a thoughtful, in depth documentary about a complex issue (example: Is Walmart Good for America?). It was an expose of a complex issue. Because I was already familiar with the issues (”the beef in our burgers is all grass fed only which is healthier and more environmentally friendly and less dangerous and causes the angels to sing in heaven”), I wasn’t shocked. I was more bored, wishing that I could see something that would, you know, make me think.
But okay, it was an expose. It had a purpose, even a worthy one, and that was not to ponder at liesure the subtleties of food policy. It was to show us that the food industry is BAD and that we should definitely start eating grass fed beef, because that makes the angels sing in heaven. Judging by comments made by people ordering grass fed beef burgers from me, it worked, but I still thought it did a bad job. This is why:
The movie was more laundry list than analysis. It had a coherent message (food is made for profit, not for eating) was there, for sure, but it was hard to see for most of the movie. The movie was broken up into segments, which seemed to be a list of victims of the negative consequences of the way we make food. Not every segment was connected back to the larger structures of food for profit. More importantly, it wasn’t shown why food for profit was innately and necesarilly bad, just that it is bad as it exists in the US today.
Furthermore, although it made good points, it didn’t prove them very well. In each segment there was a big assertions with footage showing one example. Beef is usually raised in feed lots where it eats tons of subsidized corn. This increases the likelyhood of ecoli outbreaks. Footage of a feed lot. Footage of a meatpacking plant. I know that what they say is true, but they did a pathetic job of proving it. I would have liked to see multiple examples, history, analysis of why it was true, history of how it came to be true, etc.
I also would have liked to see an interview with someone who doesn’t see anything wrong with feedlots. Nothing is infinitely bad, but when I don’t see the edge of the badness, so to speak, it makes me doubt the well established bad as well as the vague far off bad. They flashed a lot of “such and such a company declined to be interviewed” on the screen, as if they were proud. “This company is so ashamed, it won’t even talk to us.” I believe that you can have a true and balanced. documentary that is so damning and embarasing that a company won’t want to show it’s face on it. But this wasn’t it. The agricultural industry’s concern that it would just be villified in this film was obviously completely legitimate.
Judging from what I hear from people ordering grass fed only hamburgers, Food Inc. has galvanized a lot of people and inspired them to think more about what they eat. And that’s good. I’m not complaining. My recommendation for you, dear reader: read a book about the food industry. Or go watch “Is Walmart Good for America?”

Fruit Trees and Simple Data

8.3.09 by Cypy + 72 comments!

I attend the environmental club at my high school (yes, I know, you readers are acquainted with it, but this is simply clarification for the so called newcomers, the Internet figures who flit in and out of existence in the Google analytics graph). Most notably, our club arranged to get the school a recycling dumpster last year and successfully emptied the recycling conrtainers around the school. This year I would like our environmental club to continue working well with past plans, and also initiate new ones. For you busy readers, here is an outline:

We will communicate with the janitors and principal to properly divvy the recycling work between volunteers and school staff. We will place recycling containers in the commons area for lunch. I would like a mandatory compostable, reyclable, and trash system in the lunch room because it generates an enormous1 amount of trash every year, and from what I have seen, most of that trash is either food (compost) or paper and plastic (recycling). I recently read about a similar recycling program at a middle school. If ten-year-olds can sort their lunch leftovers, high schoolers are more than capable. Locker clean out day has always seemed particularly wasteful because many students, fraught with end-of-school spirit, decide throw every item from their locker into the trash. Not only could we recycle most of their old materials, but we could reuse them as well. Remember that recycling comes last in the chain of Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. They’re in that order for a purpose. First we must be careful not to generate useless crap, next we must insure that what we do make can be reused (preferably for more than 10 years), and finally, once all hope is lost and we are stuck with something useless, we must break down its raw materials for the construction of new products. Locker clean out day is a potential gold mine for school supplies. It’s logical to offer “re-use” bins to the frenzied students, in place of the ubiquitous black trash can. They could simply take one extra minute to sort through their lockers, and place their extra school supplies in the re-use bins, while placing any unusable materials in the recycling. We could then have a post-locker-clean-out rummage, which would provide students with a jump start to their back-to-school shopping (completely free of charge, too).

I am extremely passionate about the fruit tree project, and as I explain it, I will be writing with unbridled excitement. This is a volunteer organization in Lawrence, aimed at planting fruit trees around town. I think Free State High School is an ideal location because they have wide open spaces, a whole lot of sunshine, and hungry students. The city is hesitant to plant fruit trees because they always worry about the mess fruit can make. Fortunately for us, the hungry student aspect of our plan will take care of any fruit before it has the chance to fall on the ground and create a mushy, sticky insect pie. In order to plant fruit trees at Free State, we must do three things: create a map of the area, and evaluate the best locations; talk to the principal and other people in charge, presenting our case, so we can approve the project; rally the volunteers and the money to plant and care for the trees. Once the fruit trees are rooted and strapping, the second stage of the project can begin: the fruit harvesting—this stage will occur years from now when I am gone from the school so I am counting on new members of environmental club to carry it through. Harvesting can be both official, and unofficial. Unofficially, students will be able to walk outside, and pluck fruit from the trees. Officially, school staff can harvest the fruit to sell in the school cafeteria.

The last branch of environmental club is the outgoing, advertising, yelling, information-giving, promotion side. Not only will we try to find new members this year, but we will also try educate non-members to be conscientious, earth-friendly citizens. The more informative our advertisements become, the less likely people will pay attention. We have a trade off between the effectiveness of education, and the amount of people we educate. We will also generate trash with any sort of pamphlet or hallway sign, so whatever signs we make, we need some environmental hocus-pocus simply to restore the resources used to create them, let alone gain a net benefit. To optimize the effectiveness of education, I would like to present important data in a manageable (i.e. understandable) form. One educational opportunity I would like to seize, is to put global warming data in perspective. I recently read an article in Make Magazine by Saul Griffith, who made a really compelling argument that despite the mass-media attention given to global warming, most people still don’t know how much energy the world is using, how much carbon dioxide results from this energy use, and what temperature correlates to what concentration of carbon dioxide. These are debatably three of the most important facts in the grand scope of global warming, but people haven’t managed to memorize them (why don’t we learn this in school?). In case you were wondering, here’s the cheat sheet:

CO2 levels in the atmosphere are often measured in parts per million (ppm)
Preindustrial levels: 280ppm
Year 2000 levels: 368ppm
Today: 387ppm
Goal to stop before: 450ppm (at this level, global warming gets really nasty)

+100ppm = +1°C

1 billion tons CO2 = 0.260 parts per million CO2
1 Terawatt-year of coal = 0.198 parts per million CO2
1 Terawatt-year of oil = 0.155 parts per million CO2
1 Terawatt-year of gas = 0.112 parts per million CO2

People use over 10 Terawatts of fossil fuels, meaning we add from 1ppm - 2ppm of CO2 every year.
It will cost over 25ppm of CO2 to build alternative energy infrastructure.
450ppm - 387ppm -25ppm = 38ppm
38ppm/1ppm to 2ppm per year = 38 years to 19 years

Basically, we have 38 to 19 years at the current rate of emissions, before we pass the all-feared 450ppm limit. We need to realize that people are using more and more energy every year due to population growth, and modernization. Considering this, we would probably pass the limit before the 19 year mark if we don’t use clean energy, and even if we develop new clean energy sources, we will pass the limit within 38 years unless we replace all our old energy sources.

I imagine other educational opportunities will present themselves as we find guest speakers to lecture for our meetings. Currently, I am talking with Bart Rudolph, who works with the Lawrence Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization as a transportation planner.

Footnote: I have no numbers, but every day, about 1000 kids eat lunch and throw away the lunch packaging.

That this blog shall not have died, well, at all

6.3.09 by Ruth + 94 comments!

he title of this post doesn’t have anything to do with its content. It is there because today was the day that I thought to myself that it was time to stop being sad that the blog is dying and actually do something about it. On to content.

This blog post could begin with an anecdote in which I read one of any number of New York Times articles and it starts me thinking about the stuff which this post is going to be about. However, it doesn’t. Today is the day I finally prove to you all that I consume media which is not the New York Times. The article which prompted me to think about what I am about to write about, was not in fact in the New York Times. It was in an even liberaler branch of the liberal media, The Nation.

This article, which I read in a non-NYT, if somewhat NYT-like, at least in terms of editorial slant, news source, was about school reform. It related, in a disapproving tone, how the merit-pay/charter school camp relies heavilly on lobbyists and Al Sharpton (who they hired) to effect school reform because it lacks broad based community support. The article did not explain who they think they are lobbying anyway and why Al Sharpton made a good spokesperson for school reform. More to the point (my point) it didn’t explain why merit pay or charter schools were bad or why whatever the broad based community supports is better.

The thing is, I think merit pay is a really good idea. It would mean, for instance, that Mr. Nichols would have some incentive to actually present some material in his AP Gov classes. (Duh there are details to work out, like how to not base pay on test scores because that would be stupid). The fact that a great idea like merit pay lacks broad based community support only reflects something that we have known about democracy for a long time- that the broad based community isn’t very good at making public policy. The merit pay/charter school folks use the means they use because those are the means they have. Nobody thinks that everyone who advocates a less-than-popular policy should give up, or wait for broad based community support to show up. If I could get policies I wanted, but only through less than kosher methods, I would probably do it.

Moral: I have resolved to stop bitching about filibusters (everyone does it), PACs (#1 donor in 2004, according to Wikipedia = EMILY’s List), lobbyists, and other means. I am going to start complaining exclusively about ends.

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