Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Public Schools Stink

David's school focuses heavily on preparing for standardized state tests. I'm told that the yeshivos don't have this type of emphasis, and I certainly don't remember such an emphasis from my own elementary school days. (Although this may be a factor of poor memory after so many years, a general indifference to standardized tests back then, or perhaps even then there was a difference between the public school and yeshiva approach?)

I didn't really think much about the tests until I attended a parent workshop last week in school. Wow, the word questions on the math test are hard. I've gone though Calc 2, calc-based statistics, two semesters of college physics (o.k, not in the most challenging college) and then various advanced statistics and medical math classes. And yet not only did I still have to concentrate really hard last week, but some questions still stumped me.

David is not the best reader and we need to keep on top of him to make sure does his reading comprehension and general reading homework. And that he does it properly. Yesterday I passed by the table as he was looking at the questions to the reading comprehension assignment and I asked him if really finished reading the passage so quickly. He said that he didn't read it yet and I started to get upset that he was already jumping to the questions without having read the passage. Then he explained to me that in school they learned to look at the questions first and then to read the passage and look for the answers (and underline them as they appear). 

I was very upset. I don't know anything about education or pedagogy, but this doesn't strike me as a something that will produce good and motivated readers. Rather, it instills in kids the message that the purpose of reading is only to answer the questions. The act of reading is lo lishma. And I'm not even sure if this tactic produces more correct answers, as I'm afraid that students my be speed scanning the passage and not find what is really the best answer anyway.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. I understand the need for standardized testing. It helps enforce universal standards and serves as a measure--even if only imperfectly--if students are meeting those standards. It helps gauge--even if only imperfectly--teacher quality and productivity. Of course all this is all the more important in public schools, where there needs to be some type of oversight--even if imperfect--for funding purposes. This is why the school staff from the principal downward are fixated on test scores; poor results can herald the closure of a school or the end of its funding. (Are yeshivos not so concerned about standardized testing as they don't really have much to loose?)

And hence I understand the curricular emphasis on mastering the goals that the standardized tests focus on, as well as the need to prepare students with various test-taking strategies and tricks.

But it really saddened me to watch David look through the passage for the answers rather than read it.
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(Click here to register as a bone marrow donor. Save a child's life.)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Zionism, the Haggadah and MO Hypocrisy

David and I are working our way through the Haggadah. While I was helping him translate Ha Lachman Anya we got up to le-shanah ha-ba'ah be-ar'a de-yisra'el. He asked me if this is a lie. I mumbled something about how we hope next year it will be different and pushed him along to the next sentence.

The truth is that for the past few years I've skipped that line during the Seder.
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I treated myself to a brand new Shulchan Aruch set at the YU Seforim Sale. It is the medium sized Bahir edition. My wife thinks it should be illegal to sell books with such small print, but I'm not a heavy user and I do think the cripsness of the print overcomes the small size.

I was so excited when I opened up the box tonight and I figured I'd show it to David. We learned together the siman about the afikomen and I introduced him to navigating around the page. At one point he had a question that I couldn't answer and he suggested we check what Rashi says. I explained that even though some of the nosei kelim are printed in Rashi type, Rashi himself lived much earlier. He asked me to tell him about the authors of the glosses. (He is always particularly interested in who Sephardi and Ashkenazi.) The truth is I can't really identify most the personalities behind the glosses, so I gravitated to the Gra. I started telling him about Gaon Rabbeinu Eliyahu and his eyes opened wide. "He has the same last name as Moshe," he excitedly said. "Are they related?"

He also wanted to know if the Rama was upset that his own projected work was pre-empted by the Beis Yosef, and on the other hand if the mechaber was angry that the Rama had added his notes to the Shulchan Aruch. It's funny, but I never really thought about it. They were contemporaries, but was there any direct interaction between the two?

Illicit Nosh

Ora walked into the room and it was clear she had a snack in her mouth that she wasn't supposed to eat. We confronted her. I love how she simply raised her hands to cover her mouth, as if she thought that by doing this she could hide her crime.

We reminded her that she isn't allowed to take any nosh without asking us first. Then she lowered her hand from her mouth and asked us, with crumbs falling uncontrolably from her mouth, if she could have some now.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Meiron, Passover 1841

"Saphet [Safed] is ranked by the Jews, along with Hebron, Jerusalem, and Tiberias, as one of their holy cities. From every part of the continent of Europe, and from Africa, the Jews resort hither, to die and be buried beside their fathers. Of a population of six thousand, fifteen hundred are Jews. In a valley at a little distance, and visible from the town, are the white sepulchers of Meiron . . . This, too, is the resting-place of countless thousands of Israelites, some of whom lived before the Christian era; but the great majority like the present Jewish occupants of Saphet, have wandered hither from the most distant regions of the earth . . . The Jews from the town often resort to these tombs, passing amongst them; and beside the ashes of his fathers the voice of the living Israelite is often heard ascending in prayer. When Stephens was here, it happened to be the last day of unleavened bread. Towards evening, the whole Jewish population came forth on the roofs of their houses in gay and beautiful costumes, the women with their ornaments of gold and silver on their heads, to enjoy the delicious hour of twilight. When the shades of night gathered round the hill, and the gay spectacle had vanished, the voice of psalms, rising from the Jewish dwellings, fell solemnly on the ear of the traveler." 
(The Modern Judea, Compared with Ancient Prophecy. With Notes Illustrative of Biblical Subjects. By the Rev. James Aitken Wylie . . . New Edition [Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1851], p. 215).

(Related: see here for Prof. Leiman on Lag ba-Omer.)