Where There Are Frogs, There’s Hope

frog2My eleventh-grade students are about to begin reading Aristophanes’ Frogs (having finished Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics). In honor of the occasion, I thought I would get some frog masks. I went to the huge costume store near Union Square with low hopes, since I have been disappointed there before. I was disappointed again.

Real costume stores are rare. In their place, you find stores with costumes taken directly from TV shows and movies. Instead of dressing up like a frog, children have only the option of dressing up as the Disney version of Kermit (not even the Sesame Street version). Instead of being a princess, they must be Princess Leia. Instead of dressing as a monster, they must be a specific one from Monsters University. There are hardly any robes, eyeballs, robes that stand alone.

It is not a problem to have costumes for fictional, dramatic, mythological characters; what bothers me is that they’re already defined by a TV show or film. Kids know exactly how they’re supposed to look as these characters; there’s little room for invention or eccentricity. It would be one thing if a store had a few such costumes; now, nearly all of the costumes are based on characters from big-budget movies.

In short, the store had no frog masks. It did have a rubber Kermit mask (in the Disney section, of course). Determined to have something to bring in, I got it. “All sales are final,” said the person at the register. I regretted my purchase right then but went ahead with it.

I went home in a somewhat gloomy mood, thinking about the demise of costume stores and all that comes with them.

As I walked from the train station to my place, I saw a big 99-cent store. “Oh well,” I thought. “I might as well stop in there. For all I know, they have frog masks.” I even thought of making frog masks from construction paper–but am not too good at that kind of thing, and know they would fall apart right away.

The store didn’t have frog masks, exactly, but it had seven adorable frog caps (with no relation to Disney). I snatched them all up. We will have frogs today.

In the Airport Security Line, Some Get to Wear Their Shoes

This is not a satire.

I am in the St. Louis airport, about to head home after giving a talk and taking part in a lively panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. It was a great occasion for a number of reasons–but this post is not about that.

When I stood in the security line at the airport just a few minutes ago, a Transportation Security Administration officer told the man in front of me that he was approved for “pre-check” and could go through a special line where he didn’t have to remove his shoes, take out his liquids, etc.

The man asked why he had been approved for pre-check. He had never heard of such a thing. The TSA officer didn’t have an answer for him.

A few minutes later, I looked it up, and sure enough, the TSA is rolling out a pre-check program, to which you supposedly have to apply. That has been going on since 2011. But there’s more, according to the Chicago Tribune:

In a little-noticed proposal, the Department of Homeland Security says that it plans to upgrade to its new Secure Flight System, which pre-screens all passengers. … TSA says that the new Secure Flight would be used to send non-members who are tagged as low-risk passengers through the Pre-Check lines, even if they aren’t members.

According to Government Security News, the TSA has awarded IBM a “bridge contract” for this program.

Is the program already being deployed, then? Will the “low-risk” passengers be separated by privilege from the “we-don’t-have-enough-data-on-them-yet” passengers?

District Purchases New Goal Package

vennUpsidasi, MN–While schools around the country scramble to align themselves with the new Common Core State Standards, a district in Minnesota has taken a different tack. Because growth is what matters, it has purchased a new product called Goal-a-Matic, which gathers data through surveys and sensors, generates personalized goals, and then calculates progress toward them. What’s more, it guarantees growth for all.

“It’s amazing,” said Superintendent Tracy Groter. “I just sit down with a sensor bracelet, fill out a form, and boom! I’ve got a goal that matches me. Then a few months later, I sit down again, and boom! I see growth. Not any old growth, mind you, but academic growth.”

What was her personalized goal? “I will learn the spelling of two of the three following words: accommodations, accountability, and principal.”

Isn’t that goal a bit too close at hand? “It doesn’t matter; it’s a goal,” she replied. “Goals are goals. Growth is growth. Show the growth, and you’re good to go.”

The software comes with electronic Goal-Mentors, cellphone-size digital devices that remind users of the goal every hour. “It’s great to have that kind of pressure,” she explained. “If you know you’re being held accountable, you’re less likely to slip up.”

Teachers’ goals range from “I will write three standards on chart paper five times a week” to “I will praise the new teacher evaluation system in two out of the next three faculty meetings.” (While not strictly academic, these goals still serve academic purposes, according to Groter.)

For students, the goals are friendly and flexible: for instance, “I will turn and talk to my neighbor in 80 percent of my classes”; “I will draw a Venn diagram of something”; or “I will look at the title of a book and predict what it will be about.”

“I find these goals incredibly annoying,” said a fifth-grader. “I want to learn algebra, and instead I have to spend all day promising to learn inane strategies that I don’t even need and then showing that I’ve learned them.”

“This kid is just going to have to get used to it,” said Groter, “because the workplace does this kind of thing too. In fact, we’re borrowing a lot from what we hear is out there.”

Setting and meeting goals is only part of the process. Once they have attained their goals, students, teachers, and administrators must advertise their attainments. “When you’ve got 100 people showing growth, there’s got to be some other way of standing out,” said Groter. “Basically you’ve got to promote yourself. You do it by buying airtime.”

When students meet goals, they earn advertisement points. Once they accumulate five points, they may show a video ad of their attainments at the start of class. The teacher must accommodate these needs. At the end of the week, students vote on the most popular ads. The students with the winning ads take part in speed-networking events; the one that makes the best impression is named Student of the Week. At the end of the year, the student with the most Student of the Week awards receives the Success Prize, the school’s highest honor.

“I made my ads over the summer,” said Vince Chitry, a high school junior. “Then I started talking them up on Facebook. I know I’ve got the votes. Question is, what if someone offers to buy my votes? I could really use the cash. I could even use some of it toward special effects for my next video. I’ll have to think about that one.”

Vera Denken, a history teacher, asked what students would learn from all of this. She was swiftly informed that she would have to make an ad (her second) in which she displayed at least five approved “artifacts” of goal attainment.

“She had better be wearing new shoes this time,” commented Groter. “You can’t succeed in the real world if you wear the same shoes in two ads.”

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