Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Upper Darby School District Dress Code: A Failed--and Harmful--Social Policy

Last night (January 26, 2016) the Upper Darby School Board had a meeting in which possible revision of the district's dress code was discussed.

I waited for three hours to add some comments (much briefer than the letter I also sent to the board) because I believe that this policy is harmful. As a concerned parent, I sacrificed my time in order to make this point.

Here's a letter I wrote to the Board earlier (note: I have little faith that this board is going to do anything to change the policy. This is why more people need to speak up and support our students and teachers.)

To:  Upper Darby School Board:

Re: Dress Code Policy at Upper Darby High School

The UDSD’s  dress code policy, while probably well intentioned, has several, overarching negative effects that are ultimately depriving our students and children of invaluable instructional time—while also contributing to a combative, overly punitive school atmosphere (in the high school, particularly) that makes students feel victimized, parents feel frustrated, and teachers and school administrators feel like police.

This is why the Board needs to eliminate the UDSD dress code.

The Board’s view on this matter was reportedly swayed last year by a few parents of elementary students who spoke in favor of maintaining the status quo. Please keep in mind that it is not fair for a few parents to dictate policy that affects the lives of thousands of other residents and families, and that these few parents do not speak for every other parent in the district.

Those who support the strict UDSD dress code likely do not understand the extreme academic and psychological effect, the harm, this policy is causing in the High School.

At the very least, couldn’t the uniform policy no longer apply to the high school? Why does the entire district need to abide by the same policy? Just as we have “states’ rights,” should we not have schools’ rights?

Parents of elementary school children (and perhaps some middle school parents, as well) often appreciate school uniforms, and I understand this. Uniforms can make life simpler; after all, when kids are little, a child will wear what a parent puts on his or her body, or what’s hanging in the closet. The middle school years are often full of petty jealousies and competition, so maybe strict dress codes work for this age group, too (although the kids will no doubt complain).

Fast forward to adolescence—high school. Having a strict dress code suddenly turns a “level playing field” convenience into the bane of everyone’s existence.

The dress code policy is ruining high school in Upper Darby.

Lest this sound like a hyperbolic statement, let me explain:

Every class, every minute, every day of every school year at UDHS, someone is getting in trouble for a “uniform violation.”  How much time does this waste? Assuming five minutes per class period, every period, every day, every class, it has to be entire months of the school year lost to teachers feeling obligated to chase kids down the hallway, write up reports, issue demerits, banish students from classes—even refuse to allow them into a classroom to take a final exam—just to receive pointless punishments for petty uniform violations.

Keep in mind that when teachers are distracted by the “dress code policing” requirements of their jobs, they are not teaching—and the other kids are not learning. Everyone loses.

In a high school with 4,000 students, the uniform policing problem is constant, annoying, and could also be deemed unfair, particularly for girls, who more often receive these punishments. I frequently hear about my own daughter being written up, scolded, etc., for wearing a hooded sweatshirt (because she is cold, and because hooded sweatshirts are literally all that is sold in stores), or for having a small logo on her waistband.

As a teacher myself, I can’t imagine how demeaning, frustrating, and pointless it has to feel for our good educators here in the UDSD to have to waste their own time and talents writing kids up and sending them out of the classroom for the smallest violations—such as not having a collar on an otherwise perfectly nice shirt. (Do collars possess some magical ability to turn children into upstanding citizens?)

Assuming that teachers do not enjoy having to be militaristic, even semi-sadistic, about enforcement of  students' dress, what is really the point of the dress code policy?

What is this dress code teaching our kids? Are they learning discipline, or how to follow rules because of it? No--and that's a spurious argument that dress code proponents always use, despite its lack of proof.

The dress code  and its attendant punishments merely breed a simmering resentment on all sides.

It’s time to let the dress code go. Let’s get back to educating, rather than policing, our youth.

  • What has the dress code accomplished, anyway? I would argue, “Nothing.”
  • Does everyone suddenly look or feel equal in all the UDSD schools? No.
  • Has bullying stopped? Hardly.
  • Have parents saved money on clothes? I will tell you first hand that having to buy “dress code” clothes plus “regular” clothes for my two kids is in no way cheaper. Two for the price of one? No; two for the price of two, times two.
  • Are kids more focused on learning because they have a dress code? Absolutely not—and nowhere is this more clear than at the high school level.

As tired as I am about bemoaning the district’s dress code, as much as I have had to waste my own time yelling at my kids for “not being up to code,” or for accidentally (or intentionally) breaking a tiny rule, it has to be much worse for the professionals who work in our schools.

When a teacher can literally lose her job for failing to prosecute a child who is not in perfect uniform, what kind of environment is this? It’s adversarial, from the very start. Teachers are policing students; parents are policing children—and parents are also resenting the policing of their children by the teachers. Administrators get an earful, and nothing changes.

It’s time to change. The purpose of the School Board is to ensure that the UDSD has the strongest schools it can—correct?

Our schools, especially the high school, could do a better job of educating our children if the distraction and harassment caused by the policing of dress code infractions were avoided. This can easily be done by eradicating the dress code.

Please don't bother revising the dress code yet again. Just get rid of it. It hasn't worked; it will never work; the dress code merely makes life miserable for everyone.

Like Communism and "trickle-down economics," the UDSD dress code is a failed policy that looks good in theory, but hurts people in practice.

Thank you.

Elizabeth Collins, mother of two students in the UDSD.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Goofy Neurological Tests. Car, Table, Honesty--and Hope

Recently, I sought specialized care at the renowned MS Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And I realized why neurologists in my past had urged me not to go to places where I'd see many other patients with MS.

It's freaking scary. 

"Promise me, promise me, you won't go to any MS support group meetings; I don't want you to see that; it will mess with your mind," my very first neurologist said to me, earnestly cupping my face in his hands, staring deep into my eyes.

I thought the holding my face thing was weird, but I ignored it. Touching a patient's cheeks with gentle fingertips, squeezing a patient's knees to feel for muscle tone, is part of the typical neurological examination. "Do you feel that? How about that?" go the questions. It seems oddly intimate, but it means nothing.

I promised the neurologist I would not go all full-bore, "I have MS! Poor me!" after my initial diagnosis. MS back then (late 1990s) had hardly any treatment options, anyway. 

"You are young and beautiful and you cannot let this define you," the neuro continued, even more earnestly. Aw, how sweet, I thought. And a little weird.

I did not let MS define me. Once my initial, hallmark symptom, optic neuritis, cleared up, I tried to forget about MS--and I simply tried to take care of myself.

That worked pretty well. Until it didn't. I don't know if it was life stress or simply time catching up with me that made the MS reappear 16 years later.

The past year has included several relapses, and several courses of IV steroids (the old school relapse-stopper). Lots of annoying symptoms. Nothing that people who don't know me would notice--I hope. 

Even when I see the neurologist, I hear, "You look great! You're doing great!" I pass the neurological exams with high marks, despite the fact that my left leg is utterly numb, that I've been noticing that I can't seem to find my words, that some days, I can barely hold a pen or sign my name.

Testing my memory now, the neurology resident asked me, "Can you remember the three words I told you earlier?

"Car, table, honesty." I replied. 

"Great!" she said. "That's great!"

What were the words again? Car, table, honesty. How about backwards? Honesty, table, car.

Jesus. Give me harder words, I thought. What about names? Multi-syllable terms? Egon Schiele, Post-industrialization, non-renewable resources. Those words would make a better memory test than car, table, honesty. As much as I worry that I am forgetting things lately, I can still write a rather amazing persuasive essay (the academic kind) in 15 minutes flat.

I could pass the neurolgist's insipid three-word memory test with no problem. But what about five part directions? Would I be able to get from this treatment room back to my car--which was three floors, three buildings, and a shuttle bus ride away? Word tests do not daunt me. Multi-level parking garages do.

I nearly burst into tears when I first parked at Penn. Never had it occurred to me that the parking garage would not be connected to a medical office building, or any building, even a sidewalk. I don't even want to talk about how I felt when I realized this--sick, upset, hopeless. I got over it pretty fast. But it's those things that make me feel pathetic. Those pedestrian life issues. 

On my way to this appointment, I cruised past countless neurology patients in wheelchairs. People who were passed out, slumped over, seriously in trouble. As much as I think about my left leg, I can walk. I can probably even run. Yes, I keep banging into walls, dropping things, and hitting my head just about every day now, but I am ambulatory; I move fast, think fast--even if I am not moving or thinking fast enough to please myself. 

Car, table, honesty. Aubagio, interferon, alemtuzumabcervical and thoracic MRI. Blood levels of B12, D3, and thyroid stimulating hormones. There are lots of words I can remember. 

The neurologist wanted me to hop down the hallway in my bare feet. And then also in my Dansko clogs. I felt ridiculous doing this. But I felt worse when I saw a woman not much older than me who was coming the opposite way down the corridor with a cane. 

I didn't think the cane was doing her much good, as her body seemed to falling over on one side, her legs pointing in two different directions. Describing her walking speed as "slow" would be generous, as it was so slow it really was more like, "What's the point?"--though I assume the point was for her to re-learn walking.

At that moment, however, I was thinking more about how there is a weird decision to be made when you see a fellow patient. Do you politely try not to look at the other person, lest looking seem like staring? Or should you acknowledge the person somehow? I compromised with a tiny smile, a meaningful look--although I didn't want to distract this woman from her walking. I did want to let her know, I see you; I know how you feel; and you and I, we are better off than many. It could be worse. We could be in wheelchairs. But we are walking. Only we know how we used to walk, used to feel. 

Ten years from now, it could all be so different. In the past 16 years alone, MS treatment has come incredibly far (although not far enough; much time has been wasted in re-purposing old immunosuppressant drugs as opposed to doing something to repair myelin, which is the central problem). 

I came to this MS center seeking a new infusion therapy that's sort of like chemo. The side effects could be awful, or so I am told, but it might also be a cure.

We could all be cured…I hope. Perhaps my fast walking gives other people hope? I don't know. But I do know that hope is what it's all about. Not losing hope. Regaining hope. Remembering to be hopeful.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Teach your Class How to Stop a School Shooter

As a mom, I have been anxious (frequently) about having my kids attend school--as paranoid as that sounds--because all too often, there is a senseless, devastating school shooting.

As a teacher, I have experienced scary lock downs and "mad shooter on the loose" situations.  The rules say to lock the door and hide in the corner. But is that really what we should do? I never thought so, and now I know more.

School and workplace shootings do not just happen here, in the U.S. (although our absurd lack of effective gun laws--thanks, NRA! /sarcasm--certainly doesn't help). But this is not to say that America does not have a huge problem with mass shootings. Obviously, we do.

I hate that my children live in a time when this is a commonplace event.

The San Bernardino shooting yesterday is yet more proof of the need to ban assault weapons, if not all guns. Agree with me or not on that issue--but no one can disagree that there is a disturbing gun violence problem in the U.S.

Wherever or whenever a shooting happens, people ought to know what to do, or not do.

This excellent, short video by Israeli security expert, Alon Stivi, will teach you and your students so much.

It's not about being sitting ducks and passively cowering under desks. It's about fighting back, but quickly, effectively, and intelligently.

Take a look--and thank you to Men's Health editor, Eric Spitznagel, for running a great interview with Stivi that includes this clip.

Learn how to stop a shooter before he or she can hurt anyone in your classroom. It's really very easy, and practicing now will prevent tragedy later. No guns or martial arts required. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's Personal Essay Time!

Get excited! It's time to write that all-important personal essay for your college applications!

Note: I tutor/advise students for this essay. I'm not trying to be a show-off, but I am an award-winning essayist. It's what I do. 

No, I won't write the essay for you, but I will coach you and help you to write the best possible essay for your application. This essay is your story, but I will help you see how to present it in the best possible way.

Here are some personal essay writing tips:

Before you begin writing a personal essay, you should plan the impression you want to make. I like to tell my personal essay students to jot down a short list of five adjectives that they hope apply to them. Examples: persistent, thoughtful, compassionate, daring, curious. (Avoid the obvious terms such as “hard-working” or “intelligent.”)
   Knowing the impression you want to make before you begin writing can help you shape your writing without reverting to “telling” instead of “showing.” The trick to the personal essay is that you must convey these adjectives without stating them outright.

Choose the strangest story you have. The key to writing a memorable personal essay is to be memorable. Show your readers something surprising.
 You might brainstorm a list of the weirdest things you’ve ever seen, done, said. Think in terms of extremes (terrible, wonderful). Also consider what is oxymoronic about yourself (how can you be terrified of eating fish, for example, yet one time you willingly drank liquid charcoal?).

Stay focused. Try to limit yourself to one meaningful anecdote, one succinctly described life-changing event. Don’t worry: we can learn everything we need to know about you based on that one little story.
   Also, limit your story’s timeline as much as possible. No one can really write a great five-paragraph essay about her entire life. Even a slightly narrower topic such as your junior year is too much to cover in one little essay.

Write using your five senses. If you want to write a good personal essay, it needs to be bursting with vivid, true-to-life, specific images and sensory details. To help with your planning and writing, you might start by brain-storming  a "memory list" of sensory details that you remember about the event you’ve chosen to describe. You might try to recall what the weather was like, what the house smelled like, what your mother said to you and what you responded. How did your voice sound to you when you spoke? What were you thinking about, remembering, seeing?

Keep the point in mind. A personal story should always demonstrate growth and insight without overtly stating those points. Be sure to explain how you recovered, how others reacted, and what you learned. That's the point of the essay in a nutshell.
 It does take skill to do this in a subtle (not heavy-handed and obvious or maudlin) way.

Get creative with organization of details. You might immediately get to the tension in the story. You might start at the climactic point and then flash back. 
   If you want to tell the story about the time you accidentally ruined  a holiday dinner you had tried to cook, begin with an image of a turkey carcass on fire, move on to the scorched potatoes no one could choke down, and tell us about the rest of the failures; don't try to build up to them and then suddenly end. (Strict chronology is usually not the most effective organization, and your essay won't feel fresh.)

Be humble. Better yet, be self-deprecating. Remember: we are most inclined to like and believe people who aren’t afraid to show us the imperfect truth of their lives.
   When you're thinking of topics to write about, give some thought to parts of your life that you wish you could re-do. Avoid personal essay clich├ęs such as kicking the winning goal, going on a mission trip, or remembering deceased grandparents. While these can all make for excellent essays if done well, it's difficult to stand out telling a story that many readers will feel they’ve read before.

Consider your impact. What are we supposed to be noticing about this story that you're telling us? How should we feel by the time we finish reading your essay?
   Don’t tell the reader what to think or how to feel, but try to imagine how your reader will think of you, the final impression you will leave.

If you’ve done your job as a writer, then an objective reader will be able to use the same adjectives to describe you as the ones you hoped to convey when you first planned this essay.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

New SAT has problems

About eighteen months ago, when College Board first announced it was creating a new version of the SAT that would be more “relevant,” more closely linked to curricula, people were intrigued, excited.

Re-invention is always necessary. Complacency is a killer. Everything changes. Adapt or die.

People were happy that the powers-that-be were bringing back the good old 1600 score. They were getting rid of the trick questions, saying sayonara to the guessing penalty--which was always a wee bit unfair.

College Board was also making its quite dodgy essay section (dodgy because it isn't always graded fairly) optional—whatever “optional” really means. The firm is now crafting essay prompts as responses to reading passages, not as generic yet blindsiding topics. (Hooray! Now, students don’t have to keep dusting off Gandhi and MLK, Jr, as their standard examples--and they certainly won't need to follow current events in order to have things to say or connections to make!)

It is much better that students will now have twice as much time for the essay (50 minutes. The old 25 minutes was ridiculous--too short).

I believe Geometry is largely off the updated exam --though because I don't teach Math, I am not 100% sure. The Geometry-heavy angle of the SAT has always bothered me. By the time students take the SAT, Geometry is a distant memory. So what was the point of making the bulk of the math section about Geometry?

Part of the purported reason for the revamp is to level the playing field and put a stop to cries of socioeconomic unfairness.

Everyone knows that a vast test prep industry (of which I must admit I have been and still am a part) has built up around the SAT.

Assuming that the new SAT would negate (some of) the need for protracted, intense, expensive prep programs, people cheered.

Egalitarianism in action, right? No longer will a student need to be rich to earn a good score.


Or, maybe not. It's too soon to tell.

Here’s the problem: it wasn’t until a month or so ago that we even saw a full-length practice test for the new SAT.

In collusion with Khan Academy (free, DIY online tutoring), College Board finally released some samples.  See link here:

It took over a year to see this full-length practice test release. That's a dang long time.

All we’d seen before then were a few sample questions and—full disclosure here—I thought those looked rather brutal. Not that they were brutal, once attempted, but the visuals, the layout, the choice of reading passage (a snippet of a Congressional speech taken out of context) was, I think, meant to make people believe this exam revamp was going to be serious.

As in, seriously boring?

As in, seriously challenging?

My first impression was, “Oh, snap…” 

If I, as a veteran test prep teacher, as a practice test writer, and occasional actual exam writer, thought the samples looked daunting, imagine how kids felt (if they ever looked at them).

Looks can be deceiving, however. 

Despite the hellacious passage (an odd choice for a reading, I thought—too technical, too political, too dry), it was not that bad. 

When I attempted that first little sample, it was after midnight and I was exhausted, but I answered the questions no problem. No P.O.E. (process of elimination); no guessing. The answers were pretty clear, though much going back to the super-boring passage was required.

"Boring”  passages on the sample SAT do not negate the need for test prep. The prep industry will remain; I expect there will always be a market of some sort--just to teach students how to take this test. Just to give the anxious parents some reassurance.

The big problem for College Board, I think, is that all the schools where I work are steering students to the ACT now. Educators nationwide, worldwide, are deeming it “too risky” to subject 2016 test-takers to the new, untested, unknown SAT.

Cloning the ACT seems to be the biggest part of the new SAT's plan. But the difference is: we know how the ACT works.

For example: Science on the ACT is actually rather easy reading comprehension; readings are slightly more interesting than those on the SAT. There were never too many traps. P.O.E. can, however, still be used.

What the College Board needs to do to help reassure teachers and test-takers is to release some more actual exams

But they can’t—because they haven’t given any yet. The first new SAT examinees will be guinea pigs. So will the next few batches of hapless kids. I wouldn't want to be one of College Board's guinea pigs.

Peronally, I am not happy with the new SAT, from what I've seen. Why? There's been some significant dumbing-down, I think.

Yes, some of the strategical traps are gone--and that's not a bad thing; that's nice.

There are no vocabulary questions anymore. The absolute lack of vocab floored me. Seriously: NO VOCABULARY questions (I don’t count, “What does ‘fold’ mean in this passage?” as vocab).

The layout and design of the new SAT are, I fear, HUGE problems, according to what I saw on Khan Academy's practice tests.

Because I take the SAT all the time and I've been teaching it for years (and also because I'm an English teacher, and a grown-up), I don’t get questions wrong.

The practice test wasn’t hard (in fact, I thought much of it was stupidly easy)—and yet the layout confused even me and I did make some errors. Silly errors--made because I didn't understand which lines were being referred to.

You see, there are line numbers all over the place, plus weird bubble numbers (fat, bold, shadowed) hovering on top of the text.

At first, it was hard to know if the line numbers refer to the line before the number or after it. (Line numbers should be on the margins.) Plus, the fat, bubble numbers on top confused the situation.

I thought the new reading passages with their numbers all freaking everywhere looked like a potential Butterfly Ballot design disaster; here's hoping the exam gets cleaned up.

All in all, the difference between what I am doing right now for test prep (it's very intense; it's tons of work for the kids, but they learn so much--not only vocabulary words, but also logic, reasoning, all the critical skills) and what students will need to do later is laughable.

Once we all get the lay of the land, and once the layout stops being so cluttered and confusing, it seems that we won’t actually need to know much of anything, content-wise, to master the new SAT. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Mick Fanning Survived a Shark Attack

shark attack Surfer Mick Fanning

You call to whatever gods are out there.

You just say thanks. Thanks for me not dying.

Thanks for me living yet another day.

Mick Fanning Shark Attack Freak Story of
Survival. Did he punch the shark? He does
not know. He can’t remember. It’s a blur
caught on video. Hidden by a wave.

His mother, home, screaming at the TV,
trying to reach her son through the screen and
pull him close, into her breast again. Safe.
A grown son, 30 or so, about to
be eaten by a shark that seemed to know
what he was doing. Dragging the surfer,
Mick, by the leash around his ankle.

Dragging him under. Flipping him off his
pathetic white surfboard. “Fiberglass can’t
protect you, bitch!” the shark might have muttered.
The crowd on the beach is screaming but they
can’t see Mick. They don’t know if the shark won,
what Mick did, or if he’ll wash up later
or simply disappear under the blue-
green churning water With that great white shark--
not his friend, but his foe. Nemesis. Fate.

His challenge. His reminder that God may
exist and if so, God has saved surfer
Mick. Chosen him to complete a mission.
To tell the world he is blessed and lucky.
It’s a little of each, of both. Luck. Grace.

The love force is beneficent. Caring.
Like a mother. Not a man who believes
he controls his life, fully. There is some
control, but there is also surrender.

Let go and let god(s). Thy will shall be done.

They would not let Mick die. His guardian
angels came in many forms: in surfers,
in people, in rogue waves depositing
a boy, a man, safely away from the
shark that had nefarious intentions,
or hunger, or simply a drive to live--
like him, lucky Mick Fanning. Dazed, confused,
bewildered and kissed by fate and his mum
and the cheering crowds who sighed and prayed and
gasped in relief and exultation that
they did not see death today; they saw love.