Category Archives: education

The Wisdom of the Waitstaff

Apparently, the popular TV show, “Big Bang Theory” was on to something when it  placed one of its characters, Bernadette Rostenkowski, on the payroll at the Cheesecake Factory.  Bernadette waits tables at the casual dining chain restaurant as she defends her doctoral thesis in microbiology.  Life indeed does imitate art, as Plato said.  A week ago, we had a lovely family dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, and now I’m wondering if the chain seeks out only the bright candidates for its waitstaff.

Our server was a lovely young gentleman from England.  He was cheerful and polite.  When he found out we were celebrating SuzyQ’s return home from college, he revealed that he is a graduate student at the nearby university.  He told us that he also teaches some courses there.  I don’t know how long he has been in this country, but he proved beyond a doubt he knows Americans.

  • Many American college students are as dumb as a pile of rocks.  Our server expounded on the sad state of higher education with searing clarity.  Most of his students have no business sitting in a college classroom.  According to him, they spend the whole class texting or playing games or internet surfing on their laptops instead of paying attention to the lecture.
  • The American university, in our server’s experience, is essentially equivalent to British high school.  He explained that the first year classes most students take in college are covered in secondary school in Britain so that by the time a student reaches university, he is prepared for advanced study.  In other words, Americans waste a whole lot of money on so-called “college” while the rest of the world laughs about it.
  • Our server was quick to confirm that the United States used to be recognized as the world leader in education, but now, well…
  • The best insight of the evening, however, concerned the lack of sincerity among Americans.  According to our server, Americans are quick to say how much they like you or even “love” you.  In his estimation, however, Americans rarely mean what they say.  After all, “When someone says he loves you, he should be willing to take a bullet for you.”  Amen, brother!  We quickly echoed that point to SuzyQ: “When a guy says he loves you, he had better be ready to take a bullet for you!”

So there you have it.  Powerful words from a Cheesecake factory waiter.  Americans, get over yourselves!


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Homeschoolers Go Back to School, Too

For a long time, this Staples TV ad was my favorite commercial:

I still think it’s hilarious, but since my kids don’t technically go “back to school” anymore, I don’t get the same pleasure out of it.  I have to say that this is one of the few times during the school year in which I am actually jealous of those families whose kids physically attend school.

In my suburban neighborhood, the first day of school is an unofficial holiday.  Moms and Dads all gather at the bus stop in the morning and afternoon with cameras to record the day.  A moms-without-kids lunch date happens at a local restaurant.  Everyone excitedly talks about their lists of things to accomplish while the children are in school.

Not so for us homeschool parents.  My kids are still here, just like every other day.  I suppose I could join the other moms out at the bus stop to chat, but that would seem sort of silly.  I doubt anyone would mind if I attended the lunch date, but I wouldn’t have much to contribute to conversations about this new teacher or that dress code policy or the job of Room Mom.  I can’t join in the excitement about JV football or marching band.  And my list of things to accomplish during the day might include some ambitious projects, but those will certainly be interrupted by calls for help with some research or a quick read of an essay rough draft.  Inevitably, this will occur just as soon as I get the roller loaded with paint or as I’m about to put my ear buds on and head out the door for a walk.

Don’t get me wrong.  Of course there are benefits to homeschooling which emerge at this time of year.  We don’t have to worry about sleeping through the alarm and missing the bus.  No one forgets his lunch or permission slip.  And one of my personal favorites, I don’t have to participate in the total scam of shopping for the particular supplies required for each grade, homeroom, or class.  I leave it up to my own kids to pick their favorite type and color of pen, choose spiral notebooks over binders, and decide whether they will make index cards of vocabulary words or not.  Plus, I only have to provide tissues and Lysol wipes for my own household, not an entire student body.  Let’s not forget the relative ease of making dental, orthodontic, or other appointments when you don’t have to worry about your student missing a quiz while they were getting brackets adjusted or copying the notes they missed while they were getting their teeth cleaned.

OK, so the perks of homeschooling far outweigh the short-lived relief of the first day of school.  However, I know I can’t possibly be alone among homeschooling moms when I wish that every once in a while, I could just put my kids on the school bus and wave after them.  Maybe let them wander around the public high school to see what they are missing–or not.  Maybe they would gain a little more appreciation for just how good they have it: going to the bathroom or getting a drink whenever they feel like it, not having to listen to a teacher drone on and on until everyone finally gets it, setting their own schedule and either living with the consequences of it or reaping its rewards.

“Most Wonderful Time of the Year”?  Maybe not.  Maybe just a bittersweet time.  And a time to shine a spotlight on exactly how uncommon we are around here.


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The Guidance Counselor Is In

image from dullhunk

Office hours: 24 hours a day.  Case load: one student.  Wow, you say.  SuzyQ must be lucky to have such personalized attention in her college search.  Well, you see…I’m the Guidance Counselor.  Tack that on to my other roles of teacher, household Chief Operating Officer, oh…and mom and wife.  So, here I am, spending hours each day learning the new ropes of college admissions.  And it is an all-new ballgame from the one I remember 25 years ago.

Did you know that there are social networks devoted exclusively to college matching and admissions?  I do– now.  I remember the PSAT and the SAT from my own college search.  These days, though, the alphabet soup has expanded considerably:  ACT, SAT II, FAFSA (used to be the FAF), CSS, NSSE, and EFC to name a few.  I knew about early decision, but I have found out that a student can also apply under early action or single-choice early action plans as well.  I’m learning which schools use the Common App and which ones are test optional. 

I don’t have an advanced degree in education, yet I have managed to untangle the statistics and terminology enough to help SuzyQ begin to assemble a list of schools.  We have visited 8 colleges and universities so far, not counting the ones we just walked around during the Christmas break.  What I want to know is, if the competition to get admitted to college is as fierce as the media would have us believe, why are so many parents and students so completely ignorant about the whole process?  After all, most kids can just drop into their guidance counselor’s office any day at school.  Parents could call or email their kid’s counselor with questions or use the school’s login password to access information on various websites restricted to school use.

Our most recent college visits have been to a conservative Catholic school, an Ivy, and a selective private college.  At each one, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at some of the questions that were asked by parents of prospective students.  At Catholic College, parents had never heard of the Common Application or that gate-keeper of financial aid, the FAFSA.  No one asked about credit given for AP classes or what kinds of services are available at the career counseling center, but there were plenty of questions about how the visitation policy in the single-sex dorms would be enforced and who would make sure their child attended Mass every Sunday.  And no one touched the big elephant-in-the-room question about why the campus buildings (all circa 1978) are so ugly that none of them are ever shown in photos of the school.

Next we took a look at Ivy University.  It seems to me that anyone who has a kid even remotely considering applying to an Ivy League school would have their act pretty much together regarding admissions stuff.  Not so.  A parent asked if legacy (children of alumni) applicants get special preference.  If you have to ask that question and you think you will get the real scoop from an admissions officer, you should just move along.  Similarly, the parent who had no idea what “super scoring” your SAT scores meant clearly has not done enough homework to swim with the Ivy U. sharks.  With an acceptance rate of about 8%, these school demand a lot more preparation than that.

Last stop, Selective College.  Just when I think, “Here is a group of visitors who have their act together,” one of the parents drops the Diversity Bomb.  She asks what the school is doing about diversity.  Now, you would have to live under a rock to be unfamiliar with the fact that every college in the country is trying to increase its diversity.  What does she expect to hear from the admissions folks besides, “We’re proud of the gains we have made, but we still have work to do”?  Another pet peeve: people who get into their own private conversations while on the tour, ignore the tour guide, and then ask a question that she just addressed 2 minutes ago.  If you traveled all the way from California to the mid-Atlantic states, isn’t it worth your time to PAY ATTENTION??

And another thing…Why are parents the only ones asking the questions in all of these information sessions and tours?  Helicopter parenting is alive and well.  Mostly the prospective students shuffled around like zombies while Mom and Dad pumped the tour guides for info.  And I thought my homeschooled kids were supposed to be the anti-social ones.  I wonder–at what point do kids suddenly wake up and feel capable of handling their own business?  I’m pretty sure they expect their parents to get their dorm room set up.  Do they also figure Mom and Dad will register them for all their classes, line up their work-study job, and get them into a fraternity, too?  I remember feeling nervous (OK, maybe a little scared) after my parents got me unpacked and then drove away, but I don’t recall feeling helpless.

Well, I need to get back to work to figure out if attending online high school means the student is considered homeschooled for admission purposes and whether the Post 9/11 GI Bill will be de-funded before SuzyQ finishes college.  So many questions; so little time.

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The College Board Blew It

It’s not bad enough that teens freak out at the mere mention of SATs.  Lots and lots of money gets spent on fancy test prep classes.  Practice books are purchased (sometimes many of them).  With any luck, hours of studying and practice test are completed.  After all of that, students take their seat at the test center stuffed to bursting with critical reasoning skills, and confront an essay question about—wait for it—reality TV!?!  What the…?

That’s how it went on March 12, 2011.  I first heard about this from SuzyQ, who took the test that day.  Little did I realize, this essay prompt would become big news.  The New York Times ran a story about the erupting controversy, and The Washington Post covered it as well.  And the discussion boards at College Confidential are loaded with questions from panicky teens wondering if they even came close to hitting the topic.  All of the fuss revolves around the issue of whether the prompt, in assuming that all students are familiar with reality TV, handicaps those who don’t watch it.  Here is the prompt:

“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

“Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

Now, the whole point of the essay section, which was added in 2005, is to test a student’ s ability to put forth a coherent argument in writing, not to ascertain whether he or she answers a particular essay question correctly.  I think we all get that.  Given the time constraints (25 minutes to plan, write, and proofread the essay), though, a student with little to no experience with the subject matter could certainly be at a disadvantage scrambling to come up with examples to illustrate his point. 

Most test prep guides and classes instruct students to prepare some examples from history or literature that can be used to illustrate several major themes: Churchill or Washington on leadership, Edison or da Vinci on creativity, Atticus Finch or Gandhi on justice.  So where do you go with the reality TV question?  If you read some of the discussion board posts, you find that kids were frantically trying to apply anything they had heard of in history classes (like yellow journalism in the Spanish-American War or propaganda in the World Wars), almost as though they couldn’t believe the question was really about the reality crap on television.  Other kids posted about wasting so much time trying to come up with any examples because they don’t watch much TV, what with all of the studying they do.

The comments from the College Board in defense of the prompt, went like this:

We found from our pretesting that the larger issues implicit in the prompt were wide-ranging enough to engage all students, even those who lacked familiarity with particular reality television programs.

“Larger issues”???  What larger issues?  The question asks students to analyze reality entertainment.  I would hardly call that a “larger issue” to begin with.  And if a kid doesn’t watch TV, what reality entertainment does that leave?  If you ask me, the key to this guy’s statement is, “engage all students” (emphasis mine).  This is just another example of the College Board dumbing down the entrance exam in an attempt to be “fair.”  Apparently it’s more fair to assume that all students will have seen some reality TV and have opinions about it, but not all will have any ideas about patience, integrity, ambition, progress, justice, etc.  Is it fair to assume that all of those TV watchers will make the best college students?  

So SuzyQ has had rather miniscule exposure to reality TV.  We shall see where that leaves her in terms of her score.  I guess it’s some consolation that most colleges basically disregard the essay score and require their own essay with their application.  I’m sure, though, that the SAT scorers are having all kinds of fun reading teenagers’ deep thoughts on American Idol and Jersey Shore.

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Those Who Can’t, Teach??

Teachers are all over the news these days.  They are heroes, and they are villains.  I’m just scratching my head, wondering if there is any hope for the American education system.  The short answer is, No.  Public education in this country is utterly broken and beyond reform.  If Americans want free education available to every child, we need to throw out the current system and start over.  That includes rethinking how teacher are hired and compensated.

One of my favorite recent news stories has been the tale of the Pennsylvania high school teacher , Natalie Munroe, who vented her frustration about her students on her blog.  She never named her school or any student, and she blogged anonymously.  She did use her picture and first name.  Sounds to me like one of her disgruntled students dug around to find her blog and make it public.  Many call her a hero for telling it like it really is in the classroom these days.  She held little back in describing the apathy, disrespect, and trashiness of her students.  Everything she wrote that was publicized in the news is TRUE about a whole lot of  high school students.  Just ask any teacher you know.  Munroe seems to be quite articulate and clever in her writing, but she may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed for revealing as much of her identity as she did on her blog.  The outrage by those who demonize her seems to be caused by the fact that she had the nerve to reveal how she really feels about your kids.  No, she doesn’t cherish them when they swear at her, threaten her, sleep through her class, or ignore her as they plan their next hook-up.

A thousand or so miles away in Wisconsin, we have teachers storming the state capitol building in protest over a bill proposing to limit their collective bargaining rights as well as require them and other public sector union members to contribute more toward their own retirement and health care plans.  This is the hill they’ve chosen to die on.  One that is nothing about the students but all about teachers’ entitlements.  Their demonstration left some schools closed due to a massive teacher “sick-out.”  A fine example for students.  So are the comparisons of Gov. Scott Walker to Hitler on the signs some protestors carried.  Heroes of the middle class?  Or greedy union minions?

Long ago, I made the decision that public school doesn’t work.  Not for our family, and really not for anyone else either.  There is so much wrong with the system that it’s best just to abandon it altogether in favor of something completely different.  I laughed out loud reading Natalie Munroe’s scathing comments about her students…until I got to the part about parents’ outcry and her suspension.  Heaven forbid anyone investigates the cause of her remarks.  Nope.  Better to smooth the ruffled feathers of the parents of those poor children by getting rid of the teacher.  What will happen to all those Wisconsin teachers when they drag their sorry rear ends back to school?  Nothing, no doubt.  No matter that they deserve a Reagan-vs.-air-traffic-controllers treatment.  When the best education for children is no longer the focus of the education system, it’s not worth saving.

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Heaven or Harvard, or…What?

We are deep into the college search at our house.  Maybe a more accurate statement would be that I am really into the college search.  SuzyQ, a high school junior, and I seem to have a difference of opinion about what type of schools should be on the list to consider.  And it’s not what you might think.  If you refer back to my “About” page, you’ll learn that I’m a faithful Catholic who is trying to raise her family to be counter-cultural.  A big part of our decision to homeschool the kids through high school was the desire to keep them away from the indoctrination into the narcissistic and relativist mindsets that have taken over American culture.

So when it comes to searching for the right college for our first-born, why am I the one encouraging SuzyQ to look at more secular schools, rather than only “approved” Catholic institutions?  In case you didn’t know, there is a group of colleges and universities that can truly be called Catholic, while the vast majority of schools that call themselves Catholic actually are so in name only.  I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with these “approved” schools, especially if you are looking for a degree in theology or philosophy.  Generally speaking, though, they aren’t terribly strong in the sciences.  And that’s where SuzyQ’s interest lies. 

My argument:  After sheltering her for what will be about 18 years, the time comes when she needs to go into the world and face what it has to offer.  Without a doubt, it will not be easy to maintain and defend her faith at a secular school, and it will be even harder at a school that claims to be Catholic while scorning Church teaching in its classrooms and on its campus.  Hopefully, after all of these years of religious education and the example Darling Husband and I have set, she will have the tools she needs to find her way and possibly help fellow Catholic students do the same.  Maybe she will be the beacon that others are looking for.

Then there’s the question of what college is really for.  I think the days of college as a pure learning experience are over.  Frankly, it costs too much.  If you aren’t going to college with a view to preparing for a career in life, maybe college isn’t for you.  I say this as a full-time mom.  I truly believe I use my degree in History every day as I help educate my children.  Had the internet been available to offer employment from home in my years as a young mom, I likely would have pursued some outside employment that way.  The investment in a college education should be an investment in your future, in the contributions you hope to make in society.  Like it or not, studying primarily the Great Books and Western Civilization is not going to get you far in today’s world.  It might get you into law school, but even that isn’t saying much, according to this article.  And a degree in theology likely won’t land you a job that will allow you to repay those college loans in a hurry, not to mention your other bills.

Here’s my other worry about some of these “approved” schools:  They might be what some have called “Catholic ghettos.”  I don’t necessarily like that terminology, but it could be aptly applied.  Spiritually speaking, they may be Catholic utopias, but what about educationally?  When you’re shelling out close to $200,000 over 4 years, should you settle for 2nd best in faculty or lab facilities or connections that give your kid a boost in job prospects?  This post about this very issue really started me thinking about all this. 

Am I less of a good Catholic mom for questioning these colleges as the best fit for SuzyQ?  Am I risking her soul by encouraging her to look at institutions I know are filled with unashamedly anti-Catholics?  Theoretically, she could end up graduating from an “approved” Catholic college as a fanatic on the conservative end of the spectrum.  You know, the super-judgmental, “I’m a better Catholic than you because I read the entire Summa Theologica, and I don’t wear pants” type? 

So, chime in.  What’s a Catholic parent to do?

Incidentally, Harvard isn’t on my list.  But Princeton might be.  It has a thriving Catholic campus presence in spite of being Ivy League.

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Words Mean Something

I think I may have mentioned before that I am a word lover.  Actually, I’m more of a word freak.  My kids would tell you that I get giddy over recognizing Latin or Greek roots in words.  I love the Word of the Day feature on my homepage.  And I nag the kids in their writing  and speech about choosing their words carefully.  I know that writers can agonize over each word to give their sentences exactly the right tone.

That’s why, why I was outraged to learn that Mark Twain’s most famous works will be revised in a major act of political correctness.  Apparently, a certain Twain scholar has taken it upon himself to replace the “N-word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with he word “slave” in a new combined edition of the books.  Also out are the words “Injun Joe” and “half-breed.”    The thinking here is that the new wording will be less offensive to readers so that middle school and high school teachers can begin assigning these classics once again.

Where to begin on what irks me about this English professor and a publisher taking such liberties?  Most obvious is the fact that by changing the dialect and vocabulary of the characters, he is changing the characters themselves.  This is not a matter of translating, say, Chaucer because no one understands Old or Middle English.  This is putting new words in a character’s mouth, words that Twain could have chosen but didn’t.  Mark Twain knew the meaning of the words he chose and used them for a reason.

What I find to be so laughable is this professor’s desire to protect kids from a word that they very likely use themselves or certainly hear repeatedly in the hip-hop music they love.  The “N-word” is routinely tossed about in song lyrics and teenage conversation, especially by the demographic group that would cry offense if someone of another race were to use the word.  That is a garbled, “sensitive” way of saying that it seems it’s OK for black kids to refer to each other as “niggers,” but it is a mortal sin for white kids to use that word.  There, I said it.  I half expect to find the PC police stalking my comment box now and posting hateful messages.  So the word is just fine in song lyrics, but it’s offensive in classic American literature??

Here’s what I find offensive in the so-called “literature” on high school required reading lists: sexually explicit scenes and 4-letter words.  I know a lot of that language is part of kids’ everyday vocabulary; I hear it all the time in the mall or at the library.  But to me, it’s offensive.   I also find detailed descriptions of rape, oral sex, and even consensual sex to be highly inappropriate for high school kids.  Books containing these, however, are forced on kids as “literature” by librarians and English teachers.  Take, for example, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  It’s very explicit in its description of sexual abuse.  Found on some required 9th Grade reading lists is the more recent The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  It’s loaded with shock-value scenes in place of plot, but it’s cheerfully assigned with a little disclaimer  about mature content for parents of Ohio freshmen.  Teachers really think kids are comfortable discussing such scenes in front of the whole English class?  But teachers will argue that’s what makes the books “real” and “relevent.”  Hmmm.

So are we supposed to be sensitive about are word choices or not?  I’m confused.  Mark Twain…bad; hip-hop artist…good?

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