obama_ed21The President’s “Back to School Message” has caused quite a stir. I read in the Pensacola News Journal that Escambia County schools are not planning to show the address because they say it will cut into valuable class time. Could be a reasonable claim in these times of constant standardized test preparation. But… let’s just say that claim struck me as odd considering a recent conversation I had with my daughter. What follows is my letter to Malcolm Thomas, Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County.

Mr. Thomas,
I appreciate what you’re doing with the school system. For what it’s worth, I voted for you and think you are doing what you feel is best for the students. But….

When I read your quote in the PNJ Friday, my jaw dropped. You say, “We’re in a district where our students struggle. We have bell-to-bell instruction, and we don’t want to waste a single minute.” Sounds nice. But…

My daughter is a middle school student in Escambia County and earlier this week she told me one of her teachers keeps a stack of magazines for the students to read in their downtime. “What magazines?” I asked. “It’s a stack of People magazines.” she says. I thought she was joking but she wasn’t. I still can’t believe it. A gossip magazine in, get this, her Language Arts class.

After I vented to my wife and calmed down, I second guessed myself. Maybe I’m over reacting. So I picked up the current issue of People. Just from the cover I get: “Kate Strikes Back” about the Jon and Kate divorce. “LeAnn & Eddie Take Their Love Public” and best of all, “Gerard & Jen, Their Sexy Night Out”. Nope. Not over reacting.

So I was in the process of figuring out if I’m going to make a big deal about this or just let it go and make sure my daughter brings other, more appropriate material with her to read during this “down time”. Then I read your quote in the article about the district not showing the President’s address. This is the point where my jaw dropped.

We don’t have time to interrupt our “bell to bell” educational schedule for an address by the President of the United States to our children about the importance of education. But we have time during the middle school day to catch up on the sex lives of Hollywood stars. That just doesn’t add up.

There may be a time and a place for gossip magazines or video games or other mindless distractions. But that time is not in the classroom.

There is also a time for vigorous political debate. But our children shouldn’t be used as pawns. My personal politics tend to lean to the left and I love a good natured debate. But even if I have differences with someone ideologically, I can still respect them as a fellow human being. We’re all just trying to do the best we can on this crazy ride. I say that to say this. I wasn’t a big fan of President Bush’s policies but I respect the man and think he was doing what he felt was best. So when he came to Pensacola for a rally at the Civic Center a few years ago, I checked my daughters out of school and took them to see the President of the United States in person. An experience I don’t think they will ever forget and an experience that both of their teachers felt was very worthwhile. The school work they missed that day was easily made up and my older daughter wrote a short essay about the day.

I realize “in person” and “on television” are different experiences but you dismiss the address by saying “We do not let teachers just watch television” like they’re watching soap operas or something. It’s the President of the United Sates. Disagreements or not, (and I have my own on policy as well) encouraging student to study hard and stay in school is always an important message. Yes, some children will be bored. Some will just parrot what they hear at home. But some may actually be inspired. It may be a version of the same message they alway hear but it carries extra weight coming from the President speaking directly to the students. But…

I guess if they don’t get to hear it from the source, they can always read about it in next week’s People Magazine. Maybe they’ll do some in depth coverage of the President’s choice of suit and tie for the address.

Thanks for your time. Have a great weekend.
Brian Butler

Mr. Thomas was kind enough to reply in a timely manner. He and the district have been bombarded with complaints over the past few days so the letter is more than likely a stock response that they have prepared. I’m okay with that, for now, understanding the immediate pressure he is under and the impossibility of replying to each individual message. I’ll address the magazine thing with him later. (He is a Facebook friend of mine:-) Here is his reply.

You are reading a few statements from a 15 minute interview.

There are numerous logistical issues with showing a live event to students across a large school district.

Some of the reasons most schools will be recording the address rather than watching the event live are:

- timing of address – the speech will occur in the middle of lunch schedules and the day after a holiday
- our district is conducting mandatory assessments in grades K through 10 on Tuesday
- the address is not time sensitive; the content does not necessarily have to be viewed in real time
- technology issues related to streaming video across the school district to all classrooms at the same moment; this may create bandwidth issues for us
- recording allows use of the address at a time of the teacher / school’s choosing; for some students / classes the address may not be appropriate for content or age
- allows the teachers time to view the material so that appropriate activities are developed to follow the media presentation

I have also recorded a video cast that discusses how the President’s address is being handled.

You can access the video clip at the following web address:

http://superintendent.escambia.k12.fl.us/video/president.wmv

Not a bad explanation. An article on the front page of today’s News Journal talked about the flap and all the emails that came in pro and con to the Superintendent’s office. The  paper asked for the emails as a matter of public record and printed quotes from some of them. I was so hoping mine would be quoted but no. I guess it wasn’t inflammatory enough. :-)

BLB

istock_000003758518xsmall1Icing on the Cake

My daughter is working on an essay about what we can do to save the planet. Quite possibly the most popular essay topic in every school in the country right now. But that’s not the subject of this story.

She’s a very good writer and that’s not just your average proud papa talk. She’s really good. But this essay is different. It’s part of a district wide contest with the winner at each school receiving a $100 savings bond. My daughter is stressing herself out about winning the thing and I’m trying to do the parent pep-talk thing. Trying to get her to focus on writing and not worry so much about winning or losing.

“Do your best sweetie and the rest will take care of itself. So many factors play into winning or losing so try not to think about it and just do your best.” But I don’t want to completely discount the contest so I add, “If you do your best and you end up winning, it will just be icing on the cake.”

Then I get that look. Eyes squint. Lips purse. The wheels are turning and I’m in trouble. Turns out she has a problem with the well worn idiom Icing on the Cake. Seems pretty simple to me. A little something extra on top of an already good thing. Nice. But the daughter sees it differently. Maybe it says something about the times we live in or maybe it’s just our family but what she asked was this. Who eats cake without icing? To her (and quite honestly to me too) icing is not extra. It’s essential to a cake being a cake.

So she hears the opposite of what I’m trying to say. The cake is not complete without the icing. The essay is not complete without the win. I do my best to rework what I’m trying to get across and explain it a different way but now I’m just mumble-ramblin’. As I leave her room, I close the door and the discussion with, “Just do your best sweetie.”

Part of the beauty of being a dad is having this little slice of me asking questions that I have trouble answering. Looking at even the simplest, idiotic idiom in a brand new way. That is so cool.

So that was a few weeks ago and guess what, I got bailed out on this one. She won the essay competition at her school. The results came in today. I told you she was good. $100 Savings Bond and she’s going down to an awards ceremony at City Hall with the winners from the other schools in the district. She’s so happy she’s glowing. And so am I. Oh, and she’s also getting her picture made with the mayor while she’s there. I guess that’s just icing on the cake.

BLB

Exponential Times

The tools I use daily to earn a living did not exist when I was a younger and trying to decide what to do with my life. A form of my current job was around then but so completely different I’m not sure I would have the ability or the desire to do it.

Today, things are moving even faster. The real world is light years ahead of our current education system and the gap widens every day. I have some ideas about how best to prepare my daughters for the future but there are still far more questions than answers.

A form of this video has been floating around for a year or two but this newer version still drives the point home.

Did you Know? 3.0

wii_396x320

The Entertainer

We bought a Wii.

I read a report the other day that said the average child spends 4 hours a day watching television and another 2 hours playing video games. The alarms went off in my head. Like that beeping when they test the Emergency Broadcast System. Only this time, it was an Actual Emergency. My kids are below average!

This will not do. They just need to apply themselves a bit more. I know we can get those numbers up. And if they work hard at it, maybe one day they can even be, dare I say it, ABOVE average.

So Julie and I decided to take action. We got them the Wii to go along with the Playstation from last year. Good start. Now we’re considering adding a third television to the home, perhaps in the younger daughter’s bedroom. It will be a sacrifice but we love them that much.

We’ve locked up the bikes, taken away all books and destroyed any toys that don’t require batteries. (Stuffed animals smell funny when they burn.)

But if that’s still not enough, we’re going to look into getting an Xbox and maybe even a TV on the kitchen table so we can watch while eating. Valuable time is being lost at dinner time discussing events of the day and school work. Time that would be better spent on Hannah Montana for sure.

Speaking of school, that’s one of the major obstacles to our plan. We do our best at home but they spend so much time in school that it doesn’t leave enough hours in the day for TV and gaming. But there may be a solution on this front as well. A portable gaming device or two (PSP and/or GameBoy and/or DS) should allow them to catch up during breaks at school. And if they’re careful, maybe they could even sneak in a few games during certain classes. Nobody really uses math or science after graduating anyway.

And as for TV, if we pick up a couple of iPhones, they can catch up on favorite shows while they’re at school. And it will give them a chance to bring up those low texting numbers too. It’s the best of both worlds.

But there’s another obstacle to the master plan. There aren’t really enough kid shows out there to fill all the time necessary to get our numbers up. So it looks like we’ll have to introduce some other shows little by little until they are up to speed. South Park is a cartoon so that should be a good start. The Sopranos is a possibility too. I’ve heard it’s a good family drama.

Oops. Gotta go. Just found out they’re supposed to be getting in 2 hours a day of web surfing in addition to the TV and video games. We may have to pull them out of school. But that’s the price you pay. Parenting is hard work.

BLB

TED

One of my favorite web sites in the whole world wide interweb is TED. Back in my college days, I changed majors a lot. Engineering, English, Pre-Law, Psychology, Broadcasting. It’s perhaps telling that my favorite classes back in those days were broad survey courses where I learned big ideas about big subjects. Once it got down to the nitty-gritty details, I lost interest and moved on to something else. Eight years all total and I still ended up a few credit hours short of graduating.

It drove my family crazy back then. My lovely wife even suggested I needed therapy. She was probably right. But looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Even now, if I could just go back and take classes without worrying about grades or graduating, I’d do it. I just love that feeling of sitting in a lecture hall and having a world of new ideas open up before my eyes. That’s where TED comes in. It’s like getting to sit in on lectures from the greatest minds in the world. From the about page:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader. The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

It’s an awesome collection. Here’s one of my favorites from the 2006 conference.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity

Many more gems at www.ted.com

Somewhat related to this subject is a book I’ve written about in the past: A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.

Football and Philosophy 1

There was a feature story in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about the philosophy department at Auburn University. Yes, I said the philosophy department at Auburn University. The man responsible for turning the department into one of the best in the country is Kelly Jolley. Described here by Jonathan Mahler.

At 42, he is a bear of a man with a prematurely white beard and blue eyes. He walks with an unsteady gait, the product of a pair of bad knees from his days as a high-school football lineman. You might imagine philosophers as inaccessible and withdrawn, endlessly absorbed in esoteric thoughts. Jolley couldn’t be further from this stereotype. He’s cheerful and engaged, an enthusiast about everything from college football, which he follows rabidly, even by Southern standards…

Fascinating guy and really cool story. It’s a long feature but if your interested it’s worth it.

The Thinker: How did Kelly Jolley turn Auburn University into a hotbed of philosophical talent? by Jonathan Mahler.

Football and Philosophy 2

Oh, how I do love the The Onion. Makes me happy.

Pre-Game Coin Toss: The Onion

Football and Philosophy 3

Welcome to Furious Fireflies. I’ve got a small About Page worked out so check it out. I’m kicking this thing off with a bit of a rant but if that kind of thing turns you off, don’t worry. My rants are few and far between and this place will hopefully be a smile maker instead curmudgeon’s corner. Hopefully even the rants will be smile makers.

Middle School Blues

My daughter is in middle school. There. I said it. I just need to face it and move on. She’ll be fine. She’s a bright kid and we stay involved so she’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter that she’s suddenly surrounded by hundreds of kids who are hormonal tornadoes. Kids whose bodies are maturing well before their brains. She’ll be fine.

I kept telling myself this as we prepared for the school year. We looked into different schools in the area and across the board, middle schools were the worst. We told ourselves it was just the age. Kids going through all the things that kids go through at this age just have a hard time focusing on school. Focusing on anything for that matter.

But then middle school went from being a far away, abstract idea to a reality. OMG (Trying to learn the language.) Now it was time for “orientation” at the school. We would see the place in person and our fears would melt away. The turnout was great. The cafetorium was packed. This is a good sign. Maybe all these parents are as worried as we are. We were in this together. Let’s get this thing started. Let’s let the fine teachers and administrators put our minds at ease. We are ready to put our children in your hands.

“Hello parents. Great to see such a big turnout. We’re going to have a great year. Before we get started our school jazz band will entertain you.” (I’m not making this up) Horn section: da da da….da da…..da da da…. da da…..da da da…

Louie Louie!?!?!? Are you kidding me?!?! We kick this thing off with a frat house theme song. We’re sending our kids to Animal House! Here’s where it went from there. Introductions of the teachers and staff with brief comments. When the Media Specialist was introduced, she came to the front and couldn’t figure out how to TURN ON THE MIC! The MEDIA SPECIALIST! Then the cheerleaders came out to fire up the crowd. Not with “2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits a dollar…” but with a dance number in the tradition of the Laker Girls, including the grinding and booty shaking. Great for the Laker Girls. I’m a fan of the genre. But twelve year old girls! This IS Animal House.

And the parents we were “in this together” with. During the tour of the classrooms, I actually heard a mom trying to talk her daughter OUT of taking a science class that the little girl wanted to take because the mom said it would be too much work. OMG. What kind of rabbit hole did I fall into? I left the orientation feeling disoriented.

Spring forward a few weeks. We’ve had some time to adjust and while it’s far from perfect, she seems to be doing well. She has learned a variety of curse words. The ones I had not inadvertently taught her already. She’s witnessed three fights. Young boys being young boys I tell myself. Her grades are great but the work seems far from challenging. At the Open House we had a chance to meet her teachers and talk briefly. She has her favorites and not so favorites but they all seem to be good people and good teachers.

I’m more and more convinced it’s the system that’s broken. While the age of the students is indeed a big factor, things could be much better. They’re on a massive ship with an enormous crew but they’re heading in the wrong direction. Changing course on the USS Bureaucratic Mess however, is a long slow process even under the best of circumstances. And these are not the best of circumstances.

She’ll be fine. I know. I on the other hand, may lose my mind.

One more funny. At the Open House last week, there were tables set up with info about different groups and clubs on campus. We were invited to check out the Anti Drug and Alcohol booth. This is good. Drugs are bad. Especially at this age. At this booth there was a special offer. They were trying to get people to sign what I think was an “I won’t do drugs” pledge. Sounds good. There was even the possibility of winning a prize if you signed up. If you were the lucky one picked in the no drugs lottery, you won a gift card to STARBUCKS!

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