The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Some people drink from the fountain of knowledge, others just gargle." ....Robert Anthony.
Commentary of the Day - September 16, 2012: The Nineteenth Annual Emperor's Awards. Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).
The Emperor Awards honor outstanding achievement in the world of education. Our annual prizes commemorate the monarch who paraded around in his underwear and the throng of admirers who applauded him for it.
Our first award takes us to a "jam-packed" gathering of educators where our laureate explained his prescription for "creating a school culture that breeds successful students." His "true demonstration of what engagement can look like" consisted of stimulating his audience of administrators to the point where they were "swaying their hips" as he “danced down the aisle to Aretha Franklin’s 'Respect.'" For his commitment to entertainment over content, unmistakably articulated in his explicit declaration that he'd "rather teachers lose the curriculum than lose the kids," we present the Academy’s Distinguished Priorities Cross.
The Sisyphus Prize for Perpetual Research spotlights achievement in what is always an especially fertile field. Honorable mention goes to investigators plumbing the psychology of rewards as student incentives. After three years of groundbreaking inquiry, these scholars determined that while younger students "could be wooed by a trophy," older students preferred "cold, hard cash." Equally surprising, rewards were more effective when kids didn't have to wait a month to get them. This year's Sisyphus, however, salutes a seventeen-year study which proved that preschoolers who "pay attention and finish tasks" were more likely to be successful in school and graduate from college. Evidence suggests this may be because preschoolers who pay attention and finish tasks when they're little continue paying attention and finishing tasks as they get older.
In a related category the Archimedes Eureka Honorarium recognizes the merit of a Vanderbilt University report which concluded that kids who play with active kids tend to be more active. The study's authors therefore recommend that parents "intervene in children's friendship networks" so their "sedentary" child plays with more "physically active friends." Inconveniently, researchers also found that active children paired with "more sedentary friends" will be equally likely to suffer a "decrease" in their "physical activity level," indicating that parents of active children should intervene so their offspring avoid less active children sent by parents to play with them.
The new nationwide Common Core standards promise "real world" skills to prepare American students for the twenty-first century. Our next award celebrates a sample "rich problem" touted by a national education journal as "a Common Core standard in action." In this "rigorous and relevant" exercise, students tie a string of rubber bands around a Barbie doll and drop her repeatedly from the ceiling in order to determine "how many rubber bands will provide maximum bungee jumping thrill" for Barbie without smacking her into the floor. For those unfamiliar with what constitutes a twenty-first century skill, this is allegedly a geometry lesson. It also purportedly teaches students to "persevere," presumably because they learn to keep dropping Barbie until she rebounds correctly or smashes into pieces. Fans of this exemplar of Common Core standards can claim the Euclid Prize for Real World Academics.
No review of the education year would be complete without a nod to technology. The Academy has long presented its Bill and Melinda Gates Silicon Star for the year's most stunningly inappropriate use of technology, but this year we honor the Gates Foundation itself for its 1.4 million dollar venture to develop the "engagement pedometer," an electronic bracelet that would "measure students' emotional responses to instruction" by passing an "electric current across the student's skin." While the promoters concede that the devices can't "distinguish between fear and interest" or "boredom and relaxation," the bracelets could someday enable educators to determine electronically "which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out," eliminating the time-consuming need for teachers to actually look at and listen to students.
Alongside their fondness for technology, educators venerate data. This year according to federal education department statistics, fourteen of the nation's twenty largest school districts miraculously reported absolutely "no incidences of bullying or harassment." At the same time somehow, "nearly half of all surveyed students in middle and high school reported they had been harassed," a fortuitous inconsistency which allows policymakers to congratulate themselves for successfully combating bullying while simultaneously soliciting additional funds to combat bullying. In appreciation for the education world's reverence for data, even if it contradicts itself, we bestow the Golden Calf Medallion.
Even in this age of electronic bracelets and bungee-jumping Barbies, school discipline is still a key education issue. When a school resource officer discovered a student holding a "bag of marijuana…in his hand in a school bathroom," the resource officer, who was also an off-duty policeman, arrested him. While waiting for a patrol car to arrive, the officer noticed that the culprit's backpack was padlocked. Suspecting the student might be carrying more drugs, the officer opened the backpack and discovered a BB pistol, resulting in the student's conviction for "unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon on school grounds." Fortunately, the drug-dealing, weapon-toting youth had the Washington State Supreme Court on his side. The court overturned his weapons conviction, ruling that while the resource officer could have legally searched the backpack as a school employee, he "was acting as a police officer at the time" because he'd already arrested the student for drug possession and therefore needed a warrant. For their Solomonic wisdom in striking this blow for school safety, we toast the court with our John Dillinger Medal.
Dillinger honorable mention goes to the Louisiana legislature for enacting a law that empowers schools to adopt and enforce penalties for parents who don't attend parent conferences. Now officials who routinely can't compel students to serve afterschool detentions can, at least in theory, punish their parents, though the law's sponsor conceded that "it's too soon to tell what action -- if any -- local school boards will take."
Our final presentation, the coveted George Orwell Creative Use of Language Award, ordinarily recognizes exceptional specimens of jargon and verbal obfuscation. This time, though, we pay homage to 2012's Online Teacher of the Year for her straightforward statement that she can "get to know her students even better" over the Internet than she could teaching them face-to-face. For this simple twist of language and reason, she deserves her Orwell.
If you share her point of view, award yourself an Emperor. If you don't, still remember – each of us deserves at least one Emperor for something.
Even you and me.
© 2012, Peter Berger.
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: The IP always finds Poor Elijah's Emperor Awards amusing, even when he doesn't completely agree with a particular award. For example, the IP thinks that the Washington State Supreme Court's decision was correct. A trained police officer should have known that a warrant was needed to search the backpack once the arrest was made unless the student who was arrested gave permission for the search. The correct procedure would have been to sequester the backpack and to get the warrant first. Likewise, an argument can be made that some students are willing to reveal more of their inner thoughts online than in person.
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