The night asks questions

Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, Moonlit night on the Dnieper

In the middle of the night, I am awake.

The night asks me questions and waits, watches me, motionless, silent, as I trip over my answers in my head. What am I doing with the days? How am I spending time? What am I doing occupying space? Why am I filling lungs with air?

The night offers nothing to fill up the awkward shameful silence. No chores to escape into, no phone calls, no eyes awaiting my presence, no activities. The night sits on the couch as I sit with her, my heart thudding, wondering how to answer.

Darkness swallows me up whole and the crescent moon buries a sharp corner into my chest. I have no response. I have nothing but silence as the night watches me with the eyes of a school headmistress, a work supervisor, a senior colleague, an adolescent child. Well? Who are you and what have you done? Not much. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all.

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Dear academics: Write for regular people

Dear academic friends:

I am in awe of your work and your minds. But I am continually frustrated by my inability to share your brilliance with ordinary people who do not have doctoral degrees (and vast numbers of people who do.)

I know many of you will sniff at my plea, turning up your noses at my possibly under-theorized work.

But at least people read it and understand my work. I speak and write to people who are educated, and I try to make my work accessible to people who aren’teducated.

Regular people read my book. Ordinary people who most need the ideas and arguments I write about.

And that’s our job.

What is the point of hyper-theoretical work if barely five of the least practical people in the world read it? What is the point of a book if the people who read it are the ones who rarely ever get out of their offices?

We must not write books and articles that are metaphorical walls dividing ordinary people from ideas, blocking people from this exclusive club of ideas.

And to make sure that this idea is brief and accessible, I will end this post here.

When assigning homework:

Dear teachers. When assigning homework:

  • Consider not assigning any at all. Can you get it done at school? It would be better to get the work done at school. This way, you can support your students and reinforce learning.
  • Less is more. Quality over quantity.
  • Avoid busy work. Students recognize busy work for what it is, and invest poor quality effort into it.
  • STATE DIRECTIONS CLEARLY. PLEASE.
  • PROOFREAD your homework. Punctuate. If you’re demanding academic language from your students, the least you can do is invest that same effort into constructing the assignment directions.
  • HAVE SOMEONE READ THE ASSIGNMENT TO CHECK IT MAKES SENSE. Just because it makes sense in your head doesn’t mean it makes sense.
  • Check: Read it in class. Do your students understand the homework? If not, why? Is it because of how you framed the assignment, or because you haven’t prepared them for it?
  • If they are behind schedule on submitting homework, check with them before penalizing them. Maybe the homework is so unclear they can’t even formulate questions to clarify it.
  • If a number of students have failed to submit homework or have failed to do it correctly, consider the possibility that your homework was constructed poorly.

Schools and pedagogy in science and math

When I was 15, I was preparing to sit for my O Levels. I was terrified. I was doing poorly in Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

I’d been doing badly in Math for some years before that. My parents had been paying for my schooling at an elite private school. The main subject area I excelled in was English and Urdu literature – areas I enjoyed anyway. As for Math, I recall being perpetually confused. And then, being made to stand in front of the class as a punishment for not being able to complete my work.

Because humiliation really helps learning.

I also remember my Math teacher in Class 7 shouting at us, and especially at me, because I couldn’t solve the problems: “I know your older sister. My older sister teaches the older students, and your sister is terrible at Math too.” Again, because humiliation is supposed to help.

My Chemistry teacher, bless her heart, was so terribly boring and unclear, I could never stay awake long enough to understand anything.

My parents should’ve demanded their money back.

At the age of 15, I decided I would not pursue any STEM careers – breaking my parents’ hearts, as they wanted me to be a physician.

Today, I am reminded of my private schooling and my Math teachers, and how they facilitated my aversion to Science and Math.

Because I see the same thing happening for my daughter. From an early age, I have noticed how often her teachers have focused their attention on the students who get it, not on those who do not. I have been wrestling for months with the completely unclear directions on her Science homework, and hearing her say the dreaded words I hate Science. 

I am looking at her assignments, and I see reams of space-fillers, bureaucratic paperwork to check off boxes. I see poorly-worded and barely-conceptualized work that fills up her hours. I wish I had her full attention, away from this garbage, for a few days a month so I could a bit of education in.

So you can have all the special STEM programs you want in expensive summer camps and magnet schools, but what about public K-8 schools and pedagogy?

After beating our heads against a wall for years, we have now hired a tutor. After years, our daughter has positive feelings about Math. We cannot possibly hire tutors in all the subject areas.

My daughter doesn’t have to stand in front of the class, but she frequently experiences the benign neglect of the teachers.

When she was in Grade 2, at a private school, I happened to drop by to see what was going on. And was horrified by the contrast between the learning experience of the docile, compliant, focused students vs. the students who needed some support. The main (master) teachers explained material to the smart kids, and gave them feedback as they turned work around quickly. A student-teacher produced a jar of coins for the students with autism, and spent the period picking up coins from the floor. I could barely contain my rage when I went to speak to the principal.

In private and public schools, I have been communicating about this kind of stuff for years now – specifics, pleading for support. Last year, predictably, I have heard the dreaded words that I am too demanding. Because people like me aren’t supposed to ask for support.

I am not too demanding. I just know how surely these things restrict a child’s professional and financial future. I have seen it. And I am scared.

I speak as a supporter of public schools and of teachers. I am myself a teacher. But I have to speak out about what I’ve been seeing for years.

What I am speaking of is not limited to Science and Math, but the impact of poor pedagogical support in Science and Math is especially catastrophic on kids’ futures.

Students who need support are not getting it. Teachers and schools are working for students who are already performing well.