"Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society."...  ...Mark Twain.

Commentary of the Day - January 2, 2011: The 17th Annual Emperor's Awards.   Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

[Ed. note: We were remiss in not posting Peter Berger's annual Emperor's Awards earlier in the school year.  Nevertheless, they are worth considering at the start of the new year.]

As the new school term approaches, it's helpful to reflect on last year's landmark education moments. The Emperor Awards annually commemorate the monarch of underwear fame and his devoted admirers in the hope that we might profit from their example.

With American students still lagging behind their international peers, having fallen from first to twelfth place worldwide in college graduation rates, experts and politicians are demanding more rigorous curricula and higher standards, especially in the critical areas of science and technology.  In keeping with contemporary education practice, one trendsetting American public school has surveyed the situation, measured the gap between what graduates know and what they should know, and decided to beef up its science program by offering high school science credit for participation in a community garden.  According to sponsors, the proposed garden project offers "extended learning opportunities" as it focuses on "how people with a variety of economic conditions, abilities, and disabilities interact within a community with tolerance and compassion."  Sponsors were less clear about how that qualifies as science or how raising green tomatoes will better ready America's youth to compete with kids from Bangalore and Beijing.  Their outstanding achievement in changing the subject earns them this year's Whole Earth Medallion.

In a related field, literally, the 2010 Sisyphus Prize for Perpetual Research goes to a team of New York scientists for their conclusion, reported in NEAToday, that "getting dirty might make kids smarter."  Apparently, some bacteria found in dirt may "decrease anxiety in laboratory animals," while also increasing "cognitive function."  Schools can now anticipate dramatic budget savings as they reassign students from costly remedial instruction to forty-five minute sessions marinating in topsoil.

As American schools substitute compassion and tolerance lessons for academics, and Americans concomitantly become less civil and less educated, many high schools have added community service as a graduation requirement.  One New Hampshire school earned headlines for granting "real world learning" credits to students who observed a "Day of Silence" in support of gay rights.  Criticism centered on charges of "indoctrination" and that students were "pressured" into participating.  The principal countered that the event satisfied the school’s "Democracy in Action" requirement since it involved "laws and such" and offered to extend credit to students who attend Tea Party rallies.  Lost in the political shuffle was the possibility that neither supporting gay marriage nor showing up at a Tea Party meeting are creditworthy and the fact that students received credit for not talking.  For awarding graduation credits to students who spent a school day not participating in classes, the Academy bestows its Distinguished Priorities Cross.

Cheating remains a pervasive problem in American classrooms.  One California teacher offered his creative solution in a national journal.  To keep students from hiding cheat sheets under their tests, he punches holes along the edges of his tests.  Then he checks whether he can see each student's desk surface through the holes.  If he sees paper through the holes, he knows cheating is afoot, a clever tactic that works fine as long as his students aren't smart enough to make their cheat sheets smaller than his test papers.  The inaugural Inspector Clouseau Prize honors his achievement.

Teachers are required to attend courses, conferences, and workshops to sharpen their skills. While many offerings are of dubious value, the Paris Hilton Instructional Navel Ring celebrates "Live Authentically," an exceptional "professional development" activity for which teachers can earn two credits.  This thirty-hour "playful" course promises to help educators "discover" their "inner potential" and "gain insight into the big questions in life such as 'Who am I?'"  Student achievement should skyrocket as teachers return to their classrooms equipped with "an action plan designed to implement your new vision of yourself."

Teachers aren’t the only ones developing their vision.  In an effort to improve behavior, and in the apparent belief that adolescents aren't already self-absorbed enough, an innovative Virginia school district has installed "rows of tall mirrors" in its hallways.  According to the superintendent, "kids react as if they're being watched," and are now "tugging their pants up and walking purposefully to their destinations."  For enabling students to spend more time "glancing over their shoulder at their own image," we present our Narcissus Loving Cup.

Acknowledging the critical role technology plays in education and child-rearing, the Bill and Melinda Gates Silicon Star salutes Woman's Day for its list of helpful text messages that parents can beam to their children.  "SBYS," for "stop bullying your sister," presumably comes in handy when you need to text message your son after your daughter text messages you that he's giving her a hard time.  "BU," for "buckle up" is equally useful and can be sent "from the front seat to the back seat before you get moving."

Honorable mention goes to the innovative Oklahoma algebra class where students "are all taking turns throwing a glowing ball at the Smartboard screen."  Oklahoma requires algebra for high school graduation.  With that requirement in mind, when the ball hits Problem 14, students attempt to calculate the volume of a cylinder, given its height and radius, an exercise which might improve your pitching arm but unfortunately isn't algebra.

Emperor-watchers are accustomed to fierce competition for the George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award.  Last year the Academy honored PETA and its crusade to rename fish "sea kittens" in the hope that people would stop eating them if they had a cuter name.  As part of its campaign, PETA petitioned a Whitefish, Montana, principal to rename his high school Sea Kitten High, a request he inexplicably chose not to honor.  In light of the nation's disappointing international college graduation rate ranking, Orwell 2010 spotlights a New England high school's conspicuous effort to raise academic standards.  This September all its students, excepting those who suffer significant learning handicaps, are enrolled in college prep classes.  Officials pulled off the miracle by renaming their former general classes "college prep," a feat accomplished by adding "CP" to every course title in its catalog.  Former college prep classes have likewise been redesignated "honors," "accelerated," and "advanced placement."

As more schools adopt their strategy, twelfth place should soon be a distant memory.

If that action plan makes sense to you, award yourself an Emperor. But remember -- everybody deserves at least one Emperor for something.

Even you and me.

2010-11, Peter Berger.
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Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: Actually, if those full-length mirrors encourage some students to pull their pants up off the ground, they might not be such a bad idea after all.


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