Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Just outside of the fields in Hawaii

Hawaii's desert reminds me of pictures from the Mars Lander. The red dirt sticks and clings to everything.  Some days my rental car and I were completely camouflaged after a light rain and then wind.  In Oahu most of the fields used to be pineapple farms.  That is why you can see bits of black plastic.  The pineapple growers put down layers of black plastic, soil fumigants, and sterilizants to prevent weeds and pests. Soil remediation required mixing tons of charcoal into the soil and raking up bales of black plastic as well as a fallow period before other crops would grow.  

On the way back to the airport in Maui, I stopped by a bird preserve where they were trying to increase the populations of endangered Hawaiian Coots and Stilts.  It used to be a lagoon for farming catfish.  There was a pretty good sized flock of birds and I wished I had a decent camera with me.  If you squint, there is a stilt flying above the water.  I had other pictures of the coots, but I won't inflict smudges on the water on you.  If you go to Maui, it is just off the beach near Kihei.

They had traps set around the perimeter of the wildlife area to catch cats and rats, I think.  There are feral cats all over the island as well as bantam chickens.  I am not sure why the chickens have done so well there, but even the excess cats don't seem to be making a dent in their populations.  The native birds have a more difficult time.  They had carefully replanted the edges in native plants and if you squint and turn the computer around you can see the tiny butterflies on the native succulents.  I really need to bring another camera besides my cellphone. 

Oahu has clustered most of the hotels in Waikiki.  There are a few very expensive ones in other places, but 99% of visitors stay along the thin strip of hotels along the beach.  It is a fun place to stay if you like people watching.  There are crowds of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European, and a few American tourists.

My first year visiting Hawaii I ate every night at Morio's Sushi - the Sushi Nazi of Hawaii.  Great sushi, low prices, but almost impossible to get a seat.  The waitress the last two years remembered me and saved me a seat at the bar when I was in town.  But, his tiny sushi bar in Waikiki closed and he moved to an even smaller place further away.  I tried to get in one night and couldn't so I ended up at a small ramen shop.  That was my new favorite. Most nights I was the only American there, yet it was packed.  I sat at the bar and sketched and listened in to the other people at the bar joking and gossiping in Japanese.  I don't feel bad at all about eavesdropping when I don't understand the language.  I also went to a Japanese barbecue/bar where not even the staff spoke English and ate something that had small pancakes and stir-fried cabbage. I have no idea what it was since the menu was only in Japanese.    

The beaches and water in Hawaii really feel like something out of a postcard.  It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.  Next time Leila has to come with me.   

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our new oven

 Before I left for Hawaii, I made this pretend oven for the kids to play with while I was gone.  I need to paint it and add knobs and burners.  It is just plywood but I was pleased how it turned out.  It is just the right size for little kids and I actually like it without a door.
While the little kids were playing with pretend food, Emily made angel food cake from scratch, with no help at all.  12 eggs in one go.  Turned out perfectly. We made creme brulee with the left over yolks.  Not necessarily great for the waistline, but oh so good with raspberry freezer jam.

Monday, February 06, 2012

What is a good teacher worth?

The Heritage Institute recently wanted to compare public teacher salaries with private sector jobs and to settle once and for all the question whether teachers are over or underpaid.  To do this they looked at education level of teachers, adjusted by estimated "cognitive abilities" - How smart they are, benefits - insurance, retirement, summer vacation, and "job security".  They concluded that "public-school teachers receive compensation about 52 percent higher than their skills would otherwise garner in the private sector."

A key part of their argument is that although teachers have bachelors, masters, and in some cases doctorate degrees that their cognitive ability is lower than private sector workers with similar education level.  The authors argue that their degrees in education won't translate well to other fields  and that their "years of education may not be as valuable in the marketplace as for workers in other occupations."  Even their degree isn't as good as other majors because, "Given the relative lack of rigor of education courses, many teachers have not faced as demanding a college curriculum as other graduates." They also suggest that the smarter education majors change their minds and do not become teachers, because " Four-year graduates who became public-school teachers scored 0.23 standard deviations below [on the SAT] four-year graduates who did not become teachers."

This is hogwash.  I agree that education majors take fluff classes and they aren't on the whole good at math.  They avoid hard classes and get away with taking classes on children's literature and teaching methodology, while I struggled with organic chemistry and molecular biology.  But does "cognitive ability" make someone a better teacher? I had a lot of college professors with high cognitive ability, but couldn't teach a dog to chase a stick.  They dreaded it and hid behind powerpoint presentations and high standards to cover for poor teaching skills.  Yes, teachers get summers off.  That is a great perk.  And they have good retirement packages, and good health insurance.  If they are really making twice what they should, then why don't more people want to do it? I certainly don't want to.

What does it take to be a good teacher? It isn't necessarily what they teach, or even all how they teach, but to me how much they care.  That is hard to quantify and doesn't work in a linear fixed model.

Ms. Murr (Cassidy) 
She was my second grade teacher, and the second crush I ever had.  I was not as smitten as my friend Jeron, but I was more than willing to stay late cleaning chalkboards.  I remember being appalled to find out she was 28 or some ancient age like that, and getting married.  When she was married she invited us to the wedding.  She had a special rule for me.  I was supposed to be touching my desk at all times.  I remember dancing around it while everyone else was working hard.  She was from Georgia and her brother sent us a big box of raw peanuts to try.  We had tornado drills, which was odd for us since there had never been a tornado.  My friend and I drew a whole roll of butcher paper over the break and she accepted it gladly on our return.  She draped it all around the classroom and was impressed by the many dinosaur species we had tried to draw from the Childcraft and a dinosaur coloring book. I read Hardy Boys nonstop that year.  I loved going to school.

Mr. Burda 
My sixth grade teacher always told us he wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.  This was immensely funny to him.  He cut off his thumb on accident with the paper cutter one day.  He used to read to us hours a day.  One day the principal came in while he was reading to us. The principal was furious, apparently reading out loud wasn't part of the curriculum.  He chewed Mr Burda out in front of us.  When the principal left, Mr. Burda picked up his book and said, "Now, where were we."

That was the first year in Boise, after my parents separated.  I had few friends.  I wanted to be in the Gifted and Talented Program.  I asked Mr Burda if I could go.  He took me aside at lunch and sat staring at me a moment, then said.  "No, I don't think that would be a good idea."  I wanted to know why.  He thought, and then told me he didn't think that the two boys in the GT program would be a good influence on me. (He was right about that.  The first R rated movie I ever saw was at Nate's house.)  He asked me why I wanted to join.  I told him I was bored.  He made a deal with me.  If I finished my assignments early, I could go to the library anytime and bring books back to read.  He had me do my math assignments in different bases: binary, 3, 6, 8, 11.  He had a stack of story problems and would leave one or two on my desk.  He took our class to see the solar eclipse from the astronomy department on campus.

Mrs. Olic-Hamilton
I dreaded 11th grade English.  Mrs. Olic-Hamilton was supposed to be tough and mean, and she was.  We read book after book.  At first, one every two weeks, then once a week.  We had to type our essays.  Now this seems commonplace, but at the time was near impossible for me.  I didn't have a computer.  Mrs. O-H pulled me aside and gave me an electric typewriter.  I fell asleep typing on it sometimes and had to retype the whole page.

She discussed literary theory with us.  We had to write essays using biographical or historical evidence, or deconstructionist analysis of the text.  She required first person sources.  I read letters written by Emily Dickinsen and diaries from the Civil War.  It was a revelation that publishers actually changed the punctuation and wording to make her poems "right."   That year I discovered the Anthology of Magazine Verse from the 1920's and fell in love with the Harlem Renaissance poets. Langston Hughes is still one of my favorites.  I decided that the Scarlet Letter was a response to the rise of liberalism in America and France, and Hawthorne losing his job.  I wrote a short story about the death of my cousin in a car accident - mostly fictional, yet still the best description of how I felt.

One day she asked me to stay behind.  She asked me if I could do her a favor.  Some of the other kids in the class were shy in class.  She wanted to draw them out.  Maybe, I could help by holding back.  She would call on me during key moments to keep the discussion going, but I had to be prepared.  I studied all the harder, and sat on my hands.

Dr. Mooney
Our classroom was painted floor to ceiling with quotes and pictures from books and poems. We read John Donne and T. S. Elliot, "1984", and "Steppenwolf."  Dr. Mooney started some classes by getting out a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag.  He placed it on a stool in front of the chalkboard.  Then he sat on it until the end of class, when he took it out and ate it with relish.  One wall was devoted to the "Cereal Hall of Shame." Count Chocula, BlueBerry Sunrise, Uncle Sam's Natural Laxative Cereal.  Some days he would take us to a coffee shop for class, or interrupt the discussion to listen to Neil Diamond or watch bits of Ricky Lake.  Not because he liked them, but because they were that bad.  It could only get better.  We also read a lot, 1-2 books a week, two essays a week, every week.  But where Mrs. O-H pushed scholarship, Dr. Mooney pushed clarity.  Short, clean, precise arguments.  Gripping openings.

I was trying to decide where to go to college that year.  My mom made me promise to apply to BYU, really apply, scholarships and all, even though I wanted to go far away.  I didn't feel like I fit in with the other Mormon kids and I wanted to escape.  I applied to Harvey Mudd, Oberlin College, and New York University.  I was offered a large scholarship to Oberlin and a good scholarship to BYU.  I agonized over the decision; I broke out in hives from head to toe.  I did not want to go to BYU, but I felt pulled in that direction and it made no sense to me.  Deadlines loomed and I needed to decide.  Dr. Mooney noticed, and asked me to stay.  "Tell me about it." He said.  I talked for an hour.  He made lists on the board as I talked.  In the end, he erased it all and told me he felt like I was not agonizing over the schools.  They were all good schools.  I would do well at any of them.  The money would work out.  He thought I was deciding between a lifestyle.  Did I want to live as a part of Mormon culture?  He told me he thought it a bad idea, for him, but for me?  That was the question.

I went home, I looked at myself in the mirror.  It was not a hard decision after that.  I went to BYU.

Teachers are so important, because they are there at those key crossroads for kids, and the best ones notice and help where they can.  That is worth more than cognitive ability.  Should we pay them a decent wage to do that?  I think so.