My response to Andrew Rosenthal’s commentary: “With Zimmerman, the Scandal is What’s Legal”–New York Times

Trayvon Martin photo
Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I’ve spent the last few days doing what I imagine a lot of people have been doing: thinking about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I didn’t automatically expect a particular verdict; ever since Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, Casey Anthony . . . (the list goes on), I’ve realized that sitting on a jury and following the parameters established by legal definitions is a very different task than reading news accounts and following gut instincts. Continue reading “My response to Andrew Rosenthal’s commentary: “With Zimmerman, the Scandal is What’s Legal”–New York Times”

The Solitary Leaker – NYTimes.com

Still not sure what I think about Edward Snowden. First, he blows everything we say about needing a college degree to get a good job–he didn’t even finish high school and yet landed a position that gave him access to highly classified information. Second, I’m not sure whether to see him as a whistleblowing hero or a traitor. Ever since 9/11, we seem to be saying that we’re willing to trade some personal freedoms for greater national security, and yet when we see what that looks like in real life, we understandably don’t like it. I thought David Brooks wrote an insightful column on Snowden a few days ago in The New York Times: The Solitary Leaker – NYTimes.com.

Grading the MOOC University – NYTimes.com

I read an interesting piece recently in The New York Times by A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine. It’s on the Time’s website under the title, Grading the MOOC University. Jacobs describes his experience taking several open online courses from such providers as Coursera, Udacity, and Edx.

I found the following excerpt intriguing: Continue reading “Grading the MOOC University – NYTimes.com”

New Test for Computers – Grading Essays at College Level – NYTimes.com

New Test for Computers – Grading Essays at College Level – NYTimes.com.

edx officesI just read this piece by John Markoff of The New York Times and found it intriguing. Apparently, we’re still trying to figure out a way of automating the learning process. Apart from the fact that students are figuring out ways to do end runs around the artificial intelligence essay grading software, does a computer tell students when they have hit on idea worth exploring further?

The Algorithm Didn’t Like My Essay–The New York Times

computer reading a bookIn a recent New York Times, there was an article by Randall Stross,The Algorithm Didn’t Like My Essay.” I found it interesting because I had posted back in May on a similar article about “robograding.” Stross writes about how consistent computer-scored essays are to human-scored essays in standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He then postulates that using computerized essay grading could free up human resources to interact with students on more meaningful issues at more meaningful levels.

While I don’t disagree with him on a philosophical level–what teacher doesn’t want ways to work smarter and not burn out on repetitive tasks–the fact remains that at present there is no substitute for human interaction when it comes to written expression. For the computerized scoring functions, the grammar and style checker that comes standard with Word does about as well as the standalone programs that supposedly excel at finding errors or at rating levels of sophistication. But none of these programs actually “reads” what a student has written. They can’t detect irony, they can’t identify falsehood, and they can’t recognize empty ideas.

The dilemma is that there are certain assessments that cannot be done quickly or automatically–at least not if they are to mean anything. Perhaps we should eliminate written essays from any kind of standardized tests. Stroll points out that even human scorers of such tests typically spend three minutes or less on each essay. Having been one of these scorers, I would agree with that estimate. In such settings, you train yourself to look for very specific things in a piece of writing; most of them relate more to modes of expression rather than modes of thought. It reminds me of Billy Crystal’s line from years ago, “it is better to look good than to feel good, dahling.”

In the next week, the students in my summer online composition course will turn in their rough drafts of their first essay, and they will then spend two days reading each others’ writing and commenting on it (as will I). Then they will go back to the drawing board (I hope) and spend time wrestling not just with comma splices but with the ideas that need further development. I am just nosy enough to want to know what they really thought about the readings I chose for the course, and I am naive enough to believe our future leaders in business, technological innovation, parenting, and education will be those who were more concerned with the content of their ideas than with the “color” of those ideas’ skin (apologies to Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously–NY Times

It must be the end of the semester: I’m developing double-vision and looking for any break I can find from grading. Coincidentally, The New York Times just put out an article on the virtues and drawbacks of computer grading programs, or e-raters, which are now being used to grade essays on standardized tests such as the SAT.

Apparently, they do as good a job, or better, than I do in scoring essays, with one exception. They can’t discern truth, and poetry blows their circuits. I guess computers never met a metaphor they liked, and irony is lost on them.

Looks like my job is safe–for now.

Wonder Dog–New York Times

service dog I read an interesting article in today’s Times, titled “Wonder Dog,” about the amazing ways service dogs can affect the lives of their families. The opening anecdote focused on a family in Georgia whose son has behavioral and cognitive issues stemming from prenatal exposure to alcohol. After trying all kinds of interventions, the mom was encouraged to consider a dog who was specifically trained to intervene in her son’s frequent tantrums. Over time, the family has seen the tantrums decrease, and they have also seen some striking developments in their son’s cognitive development.

The article also talks about the training process these dogs go through, which is rigorous and highly specific. They can be trained to perform physical tasks in a home environment–everything from opening doors and turning on light switches to getting items out of the refrigerator and helping someone undress–as well as to recognize physical symptoms, such as impending seizures. Here is a video showing the training process in action.

Lauryn and the dogsAround our house, we don’t have dogs trained for service. At times, one of the 14-yr-old “seniors”–Buddy–forgets that he’s housetrained. But, as this photo attests, we’re a thoroughly integrated family. The dogs let us know when the atmospheric pressure drops and a front is moving in, Digory–the other “old man”–makes frequent rounds of the house to make sure everyone is accounted for, and the beagles . . . well, the beagles make sure that any crumbs get licked up, whether they’re on the floor, on a low table, or in an open pantry closet.

How to Fix Our Math Education – NYTimes.com

In the past two weeks, I have been reliving my middle school math nightmares, and it hasn’t even gotten tough, yet.  It all started with helping Joe, the 7th-grader, learn to work with negative numbers.  Correct that, we were learning to work with integers.  Oh, yeah, integers, numbers, and numerals are not necessarily the same thing, even though the little buggers look identical (in the future, I promise not to give my students a hard time over verb forms that seem self-evident to me).

Then, Amy, the 6th grader, needed help with long division.  I have to say I’m on much more solid ground there, but I’m already bracing myself for the mysteries of algebra and quadratic equations.  It was in the midst of these help sessions that I read the New York Times op/ed pice, How to Fix Our Math Education – NYTimes.com.  In it, the authors decry the rather abstract way we tend to teach math, divorcing it from real-life applications.  They also suggest the rather radical idea that not everyone needs to learn the same math.  It made me wonder if we don’t think of learning math the same way senior fraternity members view hell week: if I had to go through it, so do you.

It wasn’t until I took a math for non-majors course in college that I finally got quadratic equations.  When I did, they suddenly seemed beautiful–I learned to love that elusive X.  Ask me, though, how many times in the last thirty years I’ve actually had to use one in some practical way. 0, zip, nada.  In fact, I probably did encounter situations where I could have solved a real-life quantitative problem by solving for X, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.

So, here I am, back in the world of wandering through abstract concepts with no idea where this trail comes out.  I’ll be leading my kids, using a mish-mash of the New Math of my generation (“but, Dad, I have to show why that’s the correct answer!) and the shortcuts my engineer father tried to teach me (“don’t you see how much easier it is if you just switch all this stuff around?”).

I just hope and pray we get through it with a minimum of weeping and gnashing of teeth–oh, and that the kids don’t cry much, either.

Technology in Schools Faces Questions on Value – NYTimes.com

I came across this in today’s paper and found it interesting, especially since I just finished teaching an online course this summer and tend to use technology a fair amount in my teaching.  This article talks about the fact that school districts across the country have invested heavily in technology over the last decade and how difficult it is to know whether this investment has actually made a difference in learning.  One of the reasons it’s hard to come up with good data is the fact that there are just so many variables in any educational setting.  Good to think about in an era where we’re trying to figure out how to stretch a school dollar five ways.

Technology in Schools Faces Questions on Value – NYTimes.com.

Poetry on Pennsylvania Avenue?

In his editorial column from today’s New York Times, “I Yield to the Gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon,” Bill Keller recommends that Congress add regular poetry readings to its extra-curricular activities.  He argues for the humanizing effects of reading poetry, as well as the skills it develops in “open-ended thinking.”  To all of this, I had a hearty “Yea,” although I have as much confidence in something like this as I do in the newly commissioned Gang of 12.

A poem that has come to mind repeatedly this summer as I have observed the embarrassment in Washington is Ben Jonson’s wonderful epigram from the early seventeenth century:

On Something, That Walks Somewhere.

At Court I met it, in clothes brave enough,
To be a courtier; and looks grave enough,
To seem a statesman: as I near it came,
It made me a great face; I asked the name.
A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood,
And such from whom let no man hope least good,
For I will do none; and as little ill,
For I will dare none: Good Lord, walk dead still.

’nuff said.