That old social bugaboo. Again. Still.

So, recently I was observed while teaching an evening class, and a couple weeks later had the opportunity to meet and discuss the professor’s observations.  Except for one problem, most everything else can easily be resolved.

I was able to explain how the combination of illness and exhaustion were affecting me, as well as how accessory issues like Auditory Processing Disorder and tinnitus and prosopagnosia meant that I had to either work harder or do some things differently.  I explained how I took notes during the classes of what I wanted to do differently, to keep improving my teaching. I think that overall the discussion went well.

The prof had some really good suggestions, such as repeating questions, or asking students if I had answered their question.  He reminded me not to mutter to myself when looking for something, as it was distracting to the students.

Since the observation, I decided to have the students pick up their returned papers from a pile, instead of trying to pass them out. That had not worked out well.  Due to my faceblindness, I was carrying around my seating chart and asking each person if they were so-and-so before handing them their paper. Students can accept that the first week or two of school, but even though I have mentioned my problem more than once, the concept is really hard for most people to get their brains wrapped around.

Halfway into the semester, I’ve finally sorted people out with regards to my prosopagnosic identification crutches, but I’m still working getting the names attached to their individual gestalts.  The other week I was entering grades and finally realised that there’s a student who is in both of my classes!  That this student is rather generic looking, quiet, and sits in the back of the classroom doesn’t help, faceblindness-wise.

But after the whole review experience had passed beyond the anxiety level into the stage of applying the information positively, I am still sighing over one point.

I thought I had gotten past this. I thought I had it down pat. But apparently, I still need to work on making eye contact.



My Things To Do list has lain dormant in my purse all week. Not for having forgotten which Very Safe Place that I stuck it into. Not for having too few things to do to bother writing them down (as if).

Rather, because there is so little I can get done in a day. The effective list of Things To Do is reduced to:
dressing and eating breakfast,
working at job #1,
eating lunch and grading papers for job #2,
working at job #1,
eating dinner and preparing something like a lesson for job #2,
teaching job #2,
doing a bit more preparing something like a lesson,
and crashing in bed.

On Saturdays there are exciting departures from this plan: Read the rest of this entry »

Dark, stormy days

It’s not just the weather.

Christschool’s recent post, “Fleeting Innocence, Captured Before It’s Gone” got me thinking and connecting distant points, much in the manner of the orb-weaver spider that connects a broadening spiral of nodes across our back door each night.

We slide further into a scarier world.  It is not just a world where there is less freedom and diversity plus more violence and hate-crime, but rather a world that not only publicly accepts and condones, but even demands the necessity of violence.

It’s there in the realm of education, where the requirements for instruction and inclusion have created new opportunities for some spiteful people to create long-lasting terror for those forcibly obliged to attend.  When children are harassed and bullied and tormented in school to the point they finally react, their persecutors (and those who allow such events to continue) strike back and complain, “We must be allowed to forcibly control and harm those misbehaving children so we can ‘protect’ everyone.”

It’s there in the realm of employment, where the openness of accommodations and efforts of ordinary people to use them for work, shopping and leisure has provided some people with new bases for the discrimination and harassment of their coworkers, employees, and customers.  “They shouldn’t be there if they don’t want to deal with the problems they’re going to create by existing in the public sphere.  It’s too much money or trouble, or uses up resources that Real People need.  They should just stay at home or be gotten rid of.”

It’s there in the realm of national security, where anyone who is suspected of activity can be detained for years without legal process, and tortured as well.  Even ordinary, law-abiding citizens cannot expect to have the same safeguards for rights and liberties that they used to.  “Freedom isn’t free.”

Whereas violence was previously ignored, or dismissed as unimportant, or officially diminished (downgraded) as being less severe than it was, now we have an increasing number of situations where violence is seen as not only inevitable, but also as excusable, desirable, beneficial and even necessary.

Freedom and safety are obverse and reverse of the same coin; when we seek to increase one, we lose more of the other.

Sadly, as economic and political times get more anxious, groups of people withdraw back to their tribal units in paranoia.  The backward, rigid end of conservatism or tribalism reacts to uncertainty and fear by enforcing greater controls.  To some, eliminating tolerance for the Other and superstitiously making sacrifices to appease divine forces seems to be the only way to ward off Bad Things from happening.  Somebody has to pay.  It must be Somebody’s fault.  If Somebody who isn’t behaving exactly as the codes specify is punished, then divine pleasure might be gained.  If Somebody can be blamed for causing our problems, then swift and great revenge is appropriate and balance will be restored.

But scapegoating and harming the few of the outgroup does nothing to ensure that all are safe.  Hardly anyone in the larger public will even listen, and most don’t even want to hear what’s really happening.  We are sinking in insidious evil that is frosted-over in colourful “truthiness” sugar-coating, and is obscured by galas of newslessness about celebrity foibles and the nonsense over manufactroversies.  The bits that do get reported are so shouted-over with “spin” that great chunks of the public can’t even hear them, much less realise the cognitive dissonance.  Such platitudes are just the 21st-century version of Orwellian Newspeak, where we are being sold the terrifying message that


Don’t you believe it.  Be careful when there seems to be a break in the clouds; sometimes it’s just the eye of the hurricane.


Holy Shit.

(And no, I’m not going to apologise for taking Shit’s name in vain…)

Normally I love technology.  When human beings mystify me in their endless capacity to engage in rudeness and biases and cognitive fallacies, I know that I can trust machinery to perform sensibly.  Sure, things break down, and sometimes they frustrate us because our mental models are incomplete, or the design is too poor to provide the right information for us to build accurate models. But once you understand how a system works, you can rely upon it to be predictable.

But sometimes the hardware is crappy, and sometimes the software is crappy, and sometimes it’s the “wet-ware” (me) that’s introducing errors, and when things get bad, it’s all of those.  And then I spend literally hours trying to get the simplest of tasks done.  Even ordinary things, like … getting messages.


I have voice-mail messages to listen to during my brief lunch not-hour.  I’m sitting in a desk by the window, hoping that the signal doesn’t break up due to Invisible Wireless Velociraptors or whatever the hell makes the signal erratic from one minute to the next.

The first time around I miss half the message because I’m having trouble punching the mobile button and then getting it back to my ear quick enough to catch the beginning of the message.

The second time I dial back into my voice-mail, all I can understand is that there’s an Important Message from someone.

The third time around all I can understand is that someone whose name sounds like “Spencer Wallace” is calling me, and then two people in the room begin chatting and Mr Wallace’s message gets blenderized with their words.

I clap the phone shut in annoyance and go outside to redial my voice-mail a fourth time, and finally hear enough to realise that this is (A) a recorded message and (B) punching “1” will connect me to a live body … hopefully.

(Granted I have a lot of trouble understanding voice-mail messages because of my auditory processing problems, but you would think that a major mobile phone company could at least make sure their automated recordings were clearer.)

Yes, it’s a live body!  She informs me that No, it’s not Spencer Wallace, but Sprint Wireless. Damn, Live Body is mumbly or has an accent or is required to stick to scripts that aren’t helpful for me right now.  Rather than spend the rest of my break time trying to muddle out the situation, I thank her and return inside to bolt down the rest of my lunch before it gets disgustingly congealed. (The sad part is that microwaved fries/chips with leftover chile and cheese is the best lunch I’ve had all week.)

In addition to needing clearer messages, getting phone service inside of the school buildings where I work would also be a good thing — on one campus, I have to leave the building and walk across the open-air plaza and try facing cardinal directions in hopes of securing a signal.  Sometimes I have to pull up the antenna, hold the phone up to the sky, and stroll halfway to the next building to get signal.  Mind you, I am at a college in a heavily-populated area, not the intersection of Cornfield and Bob’s Road in the hinterlands.  [Name that movie reference!]


Another voice mail was from the department secretary.  Plus, apparently I missed some e-mails from her as well.  Oh heavens, that’s right — I have a staff e-mail account in addition to the other e-mail account I use at the college. I had totally forgotten about getting the password set up a couple of weeks ago, because I was starting two jobs at the same time and both jobs required lots of paperwork and setting up user ID’s and passwords for various and sundry programs.

Yes, I have two e-mail accounts provided by the college.  Not just two e-mail addresses, but two separate systems that run on two different programs.  The secretary kindly reminds me of the URL to access my other account program.

Unfortunately, that is just the sign-in page for the second account.  It runs on Microsoft Outlook, and there are no helpful user links to click for “I forgot my password”.  (Insert Mac user’s rant about Microsoftware.)  An hour later, I have finally noodled through enough of the college’s Web site to have found where to set/re-set my password (and received no less than five unwanted pdf’s that automatically downloaded after clicking on an internal search-engine result).  Finally I can go back to that sign-in page.

Polysyllabic Expletive!

I have 21,059 e-mails.

I shit thee not; apparently the account was set up for me back in September of 2003. I had no idea it was there. I assumed that my other account was “the” account, because that was the address that all of the links and documents contained.

Obviously any e-mails before this year can be deleted.  There are so many because 99.9% of them seem to be list-serve messages sent to everyone at the college.

But Techies, GET A CLUE: it would be a good idea to set up a small routine to flag when you have users who have more than a couple hundred unread e-mails AND who have never sent any e-mails, so you can send them an alert by some means other than their e-mail account.

Crap, do I have some housekeeping to do. I have to read through the past month’s e-mails to make sure I’m not missing anything critical.  Anything else that’s critical, because I already missed something.

Then I have to figure out how to set one of the college’s e-mail systems to automatically forward to the other system.

Of course, that’s in addition to other little things this weekend, like teaching my Saturday class, writing the next three exams, figuring out how to use the grade-keeping program, grading the last two exams, and entering the two-week-point attendance (which information the secretary needs to drop anyone who hasn’t shown up).


Now that I’m at home, I also have to listen to the household voice-mails on the land line.

Oh, and I ALSO need to slog through setting up my voice-mail account with the college as well!

  • Voice-mails on my mobile.
  • Voice mails at the house.
  • Voice mails at the college.
  • E-mails at home.
  • E-mails at the school.
  • E-mails at the college.
  • The other e-mails at the college.
  • The e-mails within class-access program for the two classes I teach (Blackboard, which has its own special set of glitches).

My inner child is now whining, “Do I gotta?”

I could just cry. Were I the prayin’ sort, I would be praying.  But I’m not. Were I the drinkin’ sort, I would be drinking.  But I’m not.  I’m the rocking sort. So I am going to sit here and rock, because that’s what I do when I’m stressed.  At this rate, I’m going to be walking around in circles and flapping too, before the night’s out.

Twenty-one thousand and fifty-nine.  Ye gods and little fishes!

“Mama said,

‘There’ll be days like this,’

‘There’ll be days like this,’ Mama said.”

The Shirelles, “Mama Said”

Coming down with some virus most likely, as the school nurse says it doesn’t look like strep throat (despite the sore throat that’s making it hard to lecture).  I can deal with that.

Headache, only ’bout a 4 out of 10, not so bad of itself. I can deal with that.

Ditto the tinnitus, which alas, seems to be making it more difficult to understand people, especially those students more than a few feet away from me, which is most of the time — why do the most soft-spoken students sit in the back corner?  The auditory processing glitches don’t help, either; I’m sure some of the students think I’m not paying attention, or am losing my hearing.  At least no one is going around yelling to me in the mistaken impression that volume = clarity.

Five hours sleep.  Definitely need to get to sleep sooner, and I would were it not for the class prep I have to do before and after classes.  Okay, now it’s getting really challenging.  I’m dropping words in the middle of my sentences once or twice an hour, and does that ever make me feel stupid.

I’m hungry because I didn’t eat much due to the sore throat & canker sore.

Two of the pieces of paper I really needed to have with me were not in my binder.  No, I’m sorry, I don’t remember the date of the next exam right off the top of my head.  No, I’m sorry, I haven’t memorized the ID labels to all of the slides (but I can tell you what’s important about the slide).

We were reviewing the results of the first exam.  This is the first college-level science class that many of the students have had, and some of them haven’t had a science class in years.  Bumpy ride.  It’s also the first full exam I have written, and every teacher knows the hidden hazards of writing such.

For some reason I decided to hand the graded exams out, rather than just letting the students pick their own test up.  I’m faceblind, and have not yet memorized the seating chart.  Definite planning error on my part.

My PowerPoint — that delightful gizmo that helps keep the tired, the distracted, the forgetful, the sick, and the first-time teacher from losing track of the game plan — the PowerPoint file on my flashdrive proved to be an older version that did not have the other half of the slides I needed to remind me what I was going to tell the class this evening. That too, of itself I could deal with, although the presentation was not at smooth as I would have liked, and we had to go back a few times and fill in something I had not mentioned earlier.

But all of these things together, oy vey!  I muddled through everything, but did not feel very brilliant or smooth.  I didn’t even have all of the lab equipment fully prepped because I had rushed in right before class.

And then shortly after class started, one of the professors came in to do a surprise Observation of me as a new instructor.

At least I didn’t have my trouser zip left undone, or have a strip of toilet paper (loo roll) stuck to my boot!

Mama said there’ll be days like this …


That is, de-pile-ing*.

* Not to be confused with depilling, which is trimming off those annoying “pills” that form on knitted garments. Presumably those wee balls of fuzz form due to the blasted orneryness of the universe, especially with regards to the cosmos’ dreaded knack for providing supplemental stress to anyone with OCD tendencies.

Depiling means to systematically remove piles of clutter.  On my desk, that means not just the usual bills, statements and paperwork, but also:

  • documents to be scanned,
  • Copy Center requisition forms,
  • old appointment cards and unnecessary receipts unloaded from my pockets and other ephemera,
  • 35mm slides to be scanned,
  • an empty postage-stamp strip,
  • wire twist-ties,
  • caps to ball-point pens I don’t even use,
  • hort industry infomercials masquerading as press releases or “educational materials”,
  • spare tins of lip balm and cuticle salve,
  • important receipts to file,
  • a really cool concave rock to use as a water dish when I refresh Rosie’s habitat,
  • the booklet on Inservice courses for Job #2 that I cannot attend because of Job #1,
  • beads that are still surfacing from when the curtain tie-back snapped last month, Read the rest of this entry »

Backwards Symphonies

“It’s been a long week — I bet you’re ready to decompose.”

I stared at my husband, blinking through the mental fog of too-many-jobs-not-enough-sleep.

“I’m not ready for the compost pile yet,” I replied, trying to figure out what his latest malapropism was meant to be.

“Or whatever the term is,” he added.

My brain finally catches up. “Decompress,” I answered.

What an incredibly long week.  I can’t remember the last time I had one like this, and in my over-busy world that’s saying something.

Wednesday last week I had a pneumonia vaccination, which left my arm so sore I couldn’t take off my jogbra without assistance, nor even get my hand up to head level until the weekend.  Moreover, Read the rest of this entry »

When smart people are stupid

So I’m getting the first day of class materials organised, and looking at the online class Web application.  The instructor and students can both use it for sharing documents, so tomorrow I will have to demonstrate to the students how to access the program, and where I will put files for them. The instructor can also use it to record grades and attendance.

I look at the roster, noting that there are two guys with the same common first name,



But otherwise nothing potentially problematic until I come across an unfamiliar name.  Bulgarian, maybe?  Slovak?


I then look at the family name,


Oh, duh!


* Maybe Demo is related to the statistician who came up with the Student’s t-distribution test   /joke

A few updates

The 92nd Edition of the Skeptic’s Circle is up, and The Lay Scientist gives us the latest press conference news as given by the Team Skeptic Manager Martin, from the state-of-the-art Olympic training facility in Beijing!  Prepare to be amazed — but never bamboozled.

The July issue of the Pain-blog Carnival is now up at How to Cope With Pain blog.  Readers share a variety of subjective experiences and treatment information.

Speaking of things painful, I put up a couple of photographs I modified to demonstrate some of the visual disturbances I experience during migraines.  Due to the trigger potential, I put these on a special page.  (The images are described for those with impaired vision.)  Alas, the Kid was laid flat by a migraine today — the preventative meds certainly help reduce the numbers of attacks, but they don’t completely eliminate them.  However, he reports that the new medication is a definite improvement over the old one, wooziness notwithstanding. A quiet “Hooray” for this encouraging news.

And although the timing isn’t quite “news” anymore, it’s not so late for it to be “olds”, so do check out the 42nd Disability Blog Carnival over at Pitt Rehab, where Greg gives us a break from the usual busyness for some summery relaxation at the beach, and plenty of great links.

As for me, I have to blame day-long teacher training class all week for my dearth of posting.  It’s been really good, but so intense — having to sit and focus on attending, listening, and learning for hours on end is hard.  Every day I run an errand right after class, and then come home to crash for a 20-minute catnap for my brain to do some filing before I can even think about cooking dinner.  The fatigue is a good reminder of what it’s like for all our students!

(Now if only the tinnitus would Shut Up.)

P.S.  Time to play ADD hide-and-seek: if you were a $100 calculator left in some random location by a teenager, where would you be?

P.P.S.  We already checked the breadbox.

School “Discipline”?

(Coffee-spew warning;
swallow beverage before reading.)

I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, and then several things reached critical mass, including a comment by a tutee, the recent post on Alex Barton (“Mend the Link”), and some internet articles listing “common questions asked in teacher interviews”.

Oh, plus this wayfinding sign displayed on the end of a “stack” at a library. The numbers of course refer to the Dewey Decimal subject classification. I like to think that whomever printed up the sign appreciated the ten-tonne irony; I also wonder just how many people actually notice it.

(Post continues below picture)

Apparently one of those common teacher-interview questions runs along the lines of, “How do you maintain classroom discipline?”

Wow. That sort of phrasing gives me flashbacks of Read the rest of this entry »

Mend the Link

A horrifying news story: a little boy in Florida kindergarten class was publicly humiliated and ostracized by his classmates, at the urging of their teacher.

After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about Barton’s 5-year-old son, Alex, his Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo said they were going to take a vote, Barton said.

By a 14 to 2 margin, the students voted Alex — who is in the process of being diagnosed with autism — out of the class.

There are so many ways to mistreat those who ought to belong somewhere. These means of intolerance, of expressing prejudice, range from the most passive to the most active. But even the passive ones are cruel when they are intended to be exclusionary. The outright active ones are the most vile.

You can be Read the rest of this entry »

Are You “Slow”?

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

A recent post on the ASCD Inservice blog describes “Myths That Haunt Students”. The authors reference three points from Allison Zmuda:

* They see learning that comes quickly as a sign of intelligence and learning that requires effort as a sign of their own lack of ability.
* Students think school and life are disconnected.
* They think learning is an orderly process rather than a messy, recursive, ongoing struggle. Even high-achieving students will shy away from challenging tasks and embrace routine assignments, which they find more comforting, Zmuda noted.

These are fabulous points, and I would rush to buy the book referenced, if only I had the money and the time to read it (my current reading stack would literally be a meter high, were I so foolish as to stack the volumes in one place).

When we mistake speed for ability — or rather, lack of speed for lack of ability — we misinterpret a person’s intelligence and their ability to learn. Students who have difficulty processing multiple sensory modes will frequently have problems keeping up with lectures or rapid-fire instruction. Adult students who have been out of education for some time will also have problems because Read the rest of this entry »

Maths * Chem = Ranting^2

Why are so many math books poorly written? Even many of the physical sciences books seem to have this terrible dichotomy between the text explaining the concepts, and the text explaining the calculations. I suspect it’s partly because one person is writing the conceptual text, and another person is writing the calculations text. I also suspect it is because both are written by people who are naturally good at the subject, just like most maths, chem, and physics teachers are naturally good at the subject.

Well, you do want people teaching who are good at the subject. But as many of us have noticed, being naturally good at something frequently results in people who cannot understand why others aren’t equally good at it. Once in a while those adepts become snobbish, because obviously the rest of the world just isn’t smart enough to get the stuff like they are. Many of the others simply have little patience with students who “must be stupid because they can’t figure out easy things” and can’t understand the material from having the previous explanation repeated again.

Duh! If it didn’t make sense the first time around, why would repeating the same explanation make any more sense the second or third time around? What we really need is Read the rest of this entry »

The Florida Swamp of Superstition

I swear, this country is getting more nucking futz every week.

In Land O’ Lakes, Florida, a substitute teacher named Jim Pikulas was fired for wizardry. Meaning, he briefly showed a class how to do a bit of sleight-of-hand.

Pat Sinclair, who oversees substitute teachers in the Pasco County School District, was on the phone. She told Piculas there had been a complaint about his performance at Rushe Middle School in Land O’ Lakes.
He asked what she meant.
“She said, ‘You’ve been accused of wizardry,’ ” Piculas said.
He said the statement seemed bizarre to him, like something out of Harry Potter.
Piculas said he replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He said he also told Sinclair, “It’s not black magic. It’s a toothpick.”

Meanwhile in the same state, there’s a bill approved by the (Florida) House:

After a long and sometimes testy debate, the House voted Monday to require teachers to include a “critical analysis” of evolution in science classes.

Proponents said the bill is needed to protect teachers and students from academic reprisal for challenging Charles Darwin’s theories, while opponents said it was a veiled attempt at sneaking religion into the public schools.

Rep. Tony Sasso, D-Cocoa Beach, warned requiring teachers to critically analyze Darwin’s findings would inevitably evolve into a discussion of biblical teachings.

“It’s about finding holes in evolution and allowing teachers to be able to do that, which in my mind, tracking this, will lead to a discussion of creativity — which ultimately will lead to a discussion of religion,” said Sasso. “We’re opening the door to religious discussion by doing this.”

What’s the deal, Florida? Is the collective rational intelligence for the entire state concentrated around Cape Canaveral?

What can’t this country drag its collective ass into the 21st century? Is there any reasonable hope of getting a job teaching real Biology without being harassed by IDiots?

New season, eternal science illiteracy

Well, it’s spring for sure because the frogs and toads have been singing, the daffodils and dandelions and forsythia are blooming, and it’s impossible to keep my nails clean. Earlier today I was able to get this shot of the chief noisemaker from the backyard pondette; it’s the American Toad (cleverly named Bufo americanus, which means American Toad).

Seeing him trilling reminded me of an incident just a few years ago when I was at a gardening function. A group of us were touring some gardens, one of which had a little pond. All of a sudden, one of the Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies* let out an agitated squeal and began dithering around in circles, begging others for assistance.

She was pointing to Read the rest of this entry »

Thrown a curve

(“Thrown a curve” is a phrase from baseball, meaning when someone throws you a curve ball that is difficult to hit; it can also mean running into something unexpected.)

Halfway through the semester of Gen Chem I, we had just gotten another exam back, and things were grim. On the first day of class, the prof had told us that, “Half of you are going to drop out or flunk,” and he hadn’t been kidding; as we neared the last day to Withdraw from class, the students were dropping like flies. Those of us still remaining were struggling mightily. The students were bitching about the teacher, and in turn the teacher was complaining about “the kind of students nowadays” (and this was back in the early 1980’s).

Of the several dozen who hadn’t given up and were slumped through the lecture hall staring at their exams dripping with red ink, only two had done well, meaning had correctly answered at least 70% of the questions. (Hallway discussions after lecture would yield the fact that both of them had taken chemistry in high school, so this wasn’t their first experience with the concepts.) As the instructor skimmed through and told us the correct answers to the test, the grousing turned to arguing, and then to deal-making.

“Do you grade on the curve?” pleaded one student. Everyone turned expectantly towards the prof, who as usual, looked annoyed and cross. His utter fatigue with teaching had been apparent from the first week, and had disimproved steadily with the succeeding weeks. His answer, like all other quantitative answers, began with a sigh audible all the way to the back of the lecture hall, and then he rambled on in a rush of words as to how such a calculation would work, and then why it wouldn’t change anything on today’s exam because of the two students’ A and B grades in the 90+ and 80+ percentiles. After giving them an earful of arithmetic, the energy of the protesters was worn down, and he returned to reciting the answers we should have gotten. Why we had not gotten them was not an issue he discussed.

Later on that day I was more puzzled by grading curves than by acid-base reactions. (The conceptual part of chemistry was fine, I had simply gotten tangled up in the calculations. Again.) Not yet having the awesomeness of the World Wide Web for looking things up, I flipped through some maths books at the library until I found mention of the Normal Distribution Curve in a statistics book.

I understood grading by percentile; a score greater than or equal to 90% was an A, 80% was a B, and so on. And I understood how the normal distribution curve worked as far as describing how most of the members in a set were in the middle range, and successively fewer were at the lower and higher ranges. But trying to apply that normal curve (a mound that looked like a sand dune, or slice of bologna after my dad had cooked it in the pan) to distribution of grades left my brain itchy.

Everyone knew that a C grade was “average”, and that C’s were common, and A’s and F’s were rare. That should then mean that the Normal Distribution Curve was being supported as a pedagogical concept. But something didn’t seem right. I figured that “mental itch” feeling meant there was something wrong with my understanding; after all, it was obvious that I had major problems with calculations.

In later years I studied statistics, and learned that not every data set would follow a normal distribution curve. Some of them followed asymmetric curves with their central tendencies over to one side or the other, some of them were two-humped (the Bactrian camels of statistics), and some data sets didn’t make any particular sort of curve at all. I also learned about statistical circular arguments, whereby creating a measurement algorithm that would result in survey scores with a normal distribution curve did not prove that a population set naturally fell into such a curve — the curve was simply an artifice of the algorithm.

I have since learned that the “mental itch” feeling does not necessarily mean I am being stupid; more often it means that something else is Not Right.

Weird things happen when people try to force students’ grade into the curve. It’s not that the scores cannot fall into a curve. Rather, it’s that people try to use curves when they shouldn’t.

With the standard grading scheme, a student has to achieve a certain percentage to be considered as having mastered whatever was being assessed. (Whether or not that assessment accurately reflects the learning objectives is a whole ‘nother story.) But if we instead impose the normal distribution curve to sort out the A, B, C, D and F grades, we then say that the top grades are A’s, the bottom grades are F’s, and the median (and frequently mode) grades are C’s. There are a couple of problem with this. Firstly, it requires that some students get bad grades. Secondly, the distribution of letter grades from the curve does not guarantee that the students are succeeding in meeting the required competencies.

In addition to the problems that can be created by imposing curves, we have an essential problem in assuming that grades should even result in a normal distribution curve. There’s that algorithmic artifice issue, where exams can be created that will (when given to a large number of students) result in a grade distribution that creates a normal curve. This is the rationale for the argument for using grade curves. But it’s a circular argument, because not all assessment methods will yield such score scatters, and they should not have the normal distribution curve imposed upon them.

Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves if demanding a normal distribution curve really reflects our educational goals. Do we really want to have certain percentages of students getting bad or mediocre grades? When we ask individual teachers what they want for their students, none of them say that they want lots of average students, a few really good ones, and a few really poor ones. When we read the mission statements for school districts, we find that every district has Lake Wobegon dreams, where they want all their students to be “above average”.

Another concern people have is with “grade inflation”. Because of the pedagogical bias or expectation that grades “should” fall into that fabulous normal distribution curve, when we get lots of students getting B’s and A’s (and hardly, if any, getting D’s and F’s), then people start fretting that something is terribly wrong. Why, there must be grade inflation going on. Obviously, if so many students are getting good grades, then that must mean that the work is too easy!

On the other hand, if most of our students are not only passing tests and courses, but are even doing very well, maybe that just means that the teachers and students are both succeeding in their educational goals. Don’t we want all of our students to pass subjects and succeed? Education is not a zero-sum game, where every winner must be accompanied by a loser. Likewise, if most of the students are doing very poorly, it does not necessarily mean the students are just lazy or stupid.

Getting permission

The last time I taught one of my gardening classes, I ran into an interesting intersection of personal change, horticulture, and pedagogy.

At the end of the sessions, the students have (optional) evaluation forms to fill out about the class and instructor. On the front is a ranking various qualities of the facility, the topic, the instructor and so on, and the back has open-ended questions about what you liked best, suggestions for improvement, other courses and what-not. These review forms are very helpful to both myself and the college.

During the last class, under the “what you liked best” section, I got a comment that I’ve never had in 15 years. Usually the positive remarks are about the handouts, the photographs, my sense of humor, and willingness to answer questions. But today one of the evaluations had minimal responses, aside from this comment: Read the rest of this entry »

Transitions, ACK!

Read up on descriptions of students with autism, Asperger’s, or Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and you find the familiar piece about how such people “have rigid routines” or “cannot deal with changes in routine”. Some of those descriptions are um, much more rigidly defined than others. I have real problems with descriptions that use a lot of always or never, as real humans just aren’t that binary. In such cases, the author is being more literal-minded than the group they are describing!

In contrast, statements worded as, “Dislikes changes in routine” or “Has difficulty with unexpected changes in routine” would be much more accurate, especially with regards to the unexpected changes — you can brace for, and plan ahead for expected changes in routines.

Therefore, consistency in routine is suggested as a good instructional, parenting, and employment tool. It’s also recommended for students with AD/HD as a support measure.

But you know what? Everyone is attached to their routines. We like to get through our morning preparation without a lot of glitches. “OMG, we’re out of coffee!” We expect holiday celebrations to go a certain way, and when two people become a couple they find out how many rituals were specific to their own families of origin, and then the couple has to decide how they are going to select and combine both of their rituals.

People in general don’t like having to adjust their day around massive changes in their schedule, and are more than a little vexed at unexpected and unavoidable challenges thrown in. Airline travel went from something exciting to a dreaded ordeal as airport security became tighter and tighter, and the airlines restricted what kinds of and how many comfort objects people could bring with them on the plane. No, “comfort objects” aren’t just teddy bears or worry-beads; a wide variety of mundane objects like your favorite bed pillow, brand of soda and portable music player are also comfort objects.

So why are some people so much more attached to their routines, and then undone when faced with changes?

There are a several reasons, related to situational decoding, compensating, and attention-switching. Read the rest of this entry »


I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s about a recent presentation I gave on Auditory Processing Disorder.

Afterwards one of the attendees had some specific questions,

and I had some ideas to offer. Here’s how it goes:

One of the things that I had mentioned that APD wasn’t really “curable”, but that one could improve some skills to cope with it. She was concerned because the school had released her son from therapy some years ago, and yet her son was demonstrating obvious difficulties again … she was concerned and puzzled.

As I’ve mentioned before, a person can “lose their label” by having achieved the proscribed psycho-educational goals. This means that the particular skills have been met so that the problem is no longer severe enough to warrant the diagnostic label. The therapists, the school district that may have employed them, the family, and the child have all succeeded in the neatly-documented IEP goals. Whoopee!

But in cases like this, although the child’s enunciation may be much improved, and his phonemic awareness sharpened (meaning he is better at discriminating between different spoken sounds), that does not mean the APD has necessarily gone away.

So why was the boy having so many of the familiar, discouraging, “Huh?” moments again? Read the rest of this entry »

Just Can’t Do

Wheelchair Dancer had a recent post where she was musing aloud about why a neighbor might keep refusing various opportunities “because she is a quad”. WCD and those commenting raised a variety of interesting possibilities to answer that question. It’s both a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, and reminded me of similar issues that I have encountered over the years. (What I am describing may or may not be the same kind of situation as what Wheelchair Dancer’s neighbor is dealing with.)

Granted, we all have limitations. Some of have have more limitations, and some of us have different limitations than most people. And yet, we have all encountered those people who get “stuck” on their limitations, well beyond the whole (initial) phase of learning to accept and cope with whatever the causes and effects are from those disabilities. They keep talking about what they CAN’T DO, not just as a practical reference to “no, that won’t work for me,” but as refutation to suggestions for a number of ordinary or alternative activities.

Trying to earnestly offer suggestions to such entrenched Can’t-Do frequently falls flat in a conversational game of “Yes-But”, leaving one feeling frustrated and eventually rather disinclined to continue offering suggestions.

Once in a while I run into this kind of thing with a tutee or student. Read the rest of this entry »

My Own Dream

Here in the States, today is Martin Luther King Jr Day, a “bank holiday” honoring the civil rights leader. This means that as a school employee, I get the day off, which in turn means that I have the opportunity to not only contemplate civil rights, but also run errands to places I can’t go because my work hours are the same as their business hours. The exceptions of course are my bank where I need to visit my safe box, and a couple of colleges where I need to visit with people about getting teaching certification. Holy conundrums, Batman!

Anyway, reading through the news brought several things to my attention, and helped clarify some of my own dream for humanity, especially with regards to both diversity in academia and the rest of the work world, the academic responsibility for preparing our students, and the social and political valuation of real science.

Firstly there is the need Read the rest of this entry »

My Favourite Oxymorons (and other “woo”)

And now for something light, because it’s been heavy blogging lately, and there’s more around the corner.

Once Upon A TIme I used to be a newspaper proofreader. And once a proofreader, always a pain in the ass, because I pay attention to the wording of the things I read (and hear). Here are some things that drive me abso-bloomin-lutely-nutz, from the realms of horticulture, entomology, and the exciting intersection, er, catastrophic collision of science and marketing. Disclaimer: these are all my own unbiased opinions.

Some years ago, a student came in and said that she wanted a “carefree garden”, one that bloomed all the time and required virtually no care. I blinked a few times in disbelief and could only reply, “Plastic?”

There’s always good, clean dirt. Although a person can have fumigated soil or “sterile” seedling media (that’s nursery-sterile, not surgically sterile, meaning free of pests and pathogens), but dirt by definition is what gets tracked across the kitchen floor, lodged under your fingernails, or ground into the knees of your pants. “Detoxifying mud bath” should join that for all-around absurdity.

Then there’s trying to explain to my students Read the rest of this entry »

Remedial Learning Lessons

“Let me get this straight — the student is not doing well in class. They’re not able to learn the material from the way it’s taught. So your solution is to give them remedial learning lessons, to try teaching them how to learn the ‘right’ way. All this remedial learning process is getting the student and the parents and the teachers frustrated, and the student is getting further and further behind their peers academically.”

I keep hearing about how some teachers or therapists or ABA workers feel that they have to teach their autistic (or other) clients “how to learn” before they can teach them content. This is absurd! Every child knows how to learn, and automatically learns. Even incredibly simple organisms like wasps can learn without being taught “how to learn”.

What these people are really meaning is that their clients and students do not learn the “right” way, meaning the way that is expected of the student in narrowly-defined settings. They don’t learn or demonstrate their learning the same way as “all the other children”.

“But the child doesn’t even know how to sit at the work table!”

I rather doubt that the child does not know how to sit at a table. Rather, the issue is that the child does not understand the instruction (or the need for following it), or cannot remain at the table for very long. Being forced to sit at the work table may even have acquired a negative connotation that the child is trying to avoid.

So for example, how does such a problem get resolved in a secondary school setting? Read the rest of this entry »

ALDs in the Classroom

On my page about Auditory Processing Disorder, someone had enquired if using ALDs (Assistive Listening Devices) in the classroom would be helpful. Her daughter, like many students, did not want to be singled out by using them and perceived by her peers as being “weird”. I thought I would expand upon the response to include more information. Please note that these suggestions are slated more toward APD and general educational design suggestions, rather than toward ALD equipment for students with severe hearing loss.

Although ALDs do work to an extent, they may not be the best choice for some situations. We should also note that although schools focus on the deficiencies of the student’s hearing, listening comprehension, or attention, quite frequently some of the deficiencies are really in the design of the school classrooms. These make it more difficult for students with APD, ADHD, or hyperacussis, and they also make it more tiring for the instructors who must spend all day trying to talk over noisy environments, and for the other students. (More on this aspect in the latter part of this post.)

One type of ALD is an FM or infrared system that involves a microphone (for the teacher) and receiver headphones (for the student). Naturally this is highly visible, so not everyone wants to be singled out in this manner.

The microphone must be positioned correctly, so the speaker’s voice does not fade in and out of range (you may have experienced this yourself when sitting in presentations or conferences). Of course, both pieces of the equipment needs to have fresh batteries and be in good repair, or it’s useless.

Sometimes microphones with speakers are recommended for teachers so they can broadcast better to the students in the back of the room. Usually the speakers are not high quality, and such systems just add to the amount of noise, rather than improving the clarity of communication!

Because the microphone is used by the primary speaker, it presents problems if anyone else in the classroom speaks. Either the mike is passed around when there are group discussions or questions, or the listener does not get comments and queries by the other students in the room. The latter not only removes a layer of information, but can also lead to reduce social inclusiveness because the person with the headphones loses the small commentaries that may not be part of the formal instruction, but are part of the socialisation and informal culture of the classroom. Even if the microphone does get passed around, the other students’ lack of familiarity with holding the mike where it can pick up their voices and the considerable junk-noise of passing the microphone do not improve the listening experience.

I will say that there are special situations when an ALD such as this would be especially good, such as when the teacher is doing instruction during a bus ride, in noisy places like zoos, factory tours, science museums and so on. It should also be made clear (and probably reminded) to the teacher that PA announcements are often unintelligible to people with APD (or hearing loss) — this means that messages will need to be passed on, and the teacher should not rely on the student being able to follow those announcements, except where they are simply following the herd of students. (I’ve had my family page me at airports and other places, and I not only couldn’t understand the page, I couldn’t even tell that I was the one being paged!)

There are alternatives to using an ALD, which should be considered and probably tried before deciding to use the ALD.

Students with APD should get “preferential seating”, which is often used for ADHD students as well. This means sitting near the teacher and/or instruction board or instruction area. The point is to reduce the amount of space and distractions between the student and the source of information. This is especially helpful if the student does some lip-reading (not everyone with APD is even aware they do this).

The teacher should be careful to not address the students when writing on the board. (Unfortunately, most teachers start out very conscientious, and then after a few days revert back to their old habits.) The student will have to get in the habit of asking, “What was that?” or “Can you repeat that?” or may have to advocate after the fact. Meaning, when everyone has started on the work, raising her hand, and then when the teacher comes by to talk with her, point out that the teacher was talking to the board (again) and she couldn’t understand everything. She could also have a special hand-signal to make when the teacher turns back around from the board, to alert the teacher of the missed communication.

Have the instructor turn on captions to broadcast media — these are good for the ESL students, and they help the other students catch the terms and spelling of details they need from the program. It’s best for the teacher to not point out that they are turning on the captions for your daughter specifically — just turn them on, and if anyone asks, simply explain that they are on so everyone can more easily understand the dialog. That’s the truth; there’s no one need for one person to be singled out.

As I referred to earlier, the classroom design can aggravate APD and ADHD difficulties. Not all of the problem should be set at the feet of the student!

“Noise” is composed of a number of factors. Most people just think of the volume (measured in decibels). But there is also the complexity factor — it’s hard to focus on one sound source when there are other sound sources going on at the same time. There is also the noise-to-signal-ratio factor where clarity is important, and clarity can be lost from not just background noise, but also echoes, unclear speech, and poor transmission equipment (fuzzy speakers, tinny receivers and so on).

ALDs are often recommended because the student (or employee) is having trouble hearing or understanding because the room is atmospherically noisy. This is in large part due to bad environmental design — too many hard surfaces, noisy HVAC (air conditioners, radiators, fans), various kinds of equipment, lots of voices at once and so on. Please note that “noisy equipment” does not mean it has to be loud by OSHA standards — students who are distractible and/or have APD problems and/or hyperacussis will find the noise levels in an average classroom to be more of a problem than many of their peers. (This also applies to many students with autism.)

Things like area rugs, draperies and acoustic tiles (or new, much more effective acoustic tiles) will help muffle a lot of the echo and reverberation. Turning off equipment when it’s not being used helps more than people realise, and is also important to save energy. If there are times when multiple instruction is going on (for example, an aide helping a few students) then setting up an area with a couple of those portable, upholstered cubicle-type dividers will help not only your student, but also be more effective for the aide and the other students. It’s always easier to “sell” an idea when the benefits to numbers of people are described.

I don’t believe that students with ADHD or APD should not even be in settings with the “open classroom” design that was in vogue some decades ago, as having several different classes and multiple instructions and larger numbers of students milling around is just too much to deal with effectively. Schools that have tried to retrofit open classroom areas into individual classrooms often end up with inadequate materials (due to budgetary issues). Unfortunately, merely pulling a folding divider wall between two rooms does not adequately damp all the noise that seeps through. A suspended (common) ceiling that is sometimes added along with the partitions does not effectively mute sound, but rather serves to transmit the sounds from one room to the next.

Likewise, rows of file cabinets are also poor excuses for walls between “rooms” in libraries or other resource rooms. It’s hard for adults to work in such environments, so I don’t know why we expect that children should find it easy. Furthermore, pretending that experiencing classes in such poorly-divided greatrooms is good practice for working in “cubicle farms” is nothing more than piss-poor rationalisation, what Alfie Kohn refers to as “getting hit on the head lessons” (justifying bad educational practices as preparation for more of the same).

Sadly, there are a great many districts that are suffering from insufficient classroom space. Teachers and students end up in a variety of locations that were never meant to be classrooms, and have had only minimal modifications, usually hanging up a whiteboard and cramming in some desks and chairs. In addition to features like thin, hollow “temporary” walls that have been there for years, odd room shapes or cramped conditions (including putting the board on a free wall rather than one that works with the traffic flow or desk orientation), and ventilation quirks we often find that these ad hoc classrooms are poorly placed with respect to other functions of the school.

Usually school architects try to create noise-buffer zones between the classrooms and the other functional areas of the school, such as the gymnasium, lunch room, kitchen, power plant, or specialty classrooms such as shop (wood/metal/engine working) or band instruction. These desperation classrooms are stuck in all sorts of bad locations, even in part of the custodian’s storage area. I remember having my Government class in a tiny room set in the back hallway by the gymnasium (it was probably once the coaches’ office), and the students reached the room by virtue of going through the boys’ or girls’ locker room. We spent the entire time assaulted by the locker room and pool chlorine smells, and the instructor had to talk over the noise from the adjoining gymnasium and natatorium.

Many older school buildings were designed in eras when passive lighting and ventilation were more commonplace. These frequently have high ceilings hung with banks of fluorescent lights and tall windows that are usually shaded by metal blinds. Those high ceilings and the hard surfaces combine to accentuate the noise echo and reverberation, and the banks of fluorescent lights are often noisy in their own regard. Because the fans are beneath the windows, the air flow will create ripples and rattles in the blinds, even when teachers try to pin down the bottoms of the blinds with stacks of extra textbooks. These are the sorts of rooms where general amplification speakers are especially un-helpful.

In summary, Assistive Listening Devices are helpful for reducing some of the noise-to-signal ratio.  However, they cannot substitute for effective interpersonal communication skills, and can only mediate some kinds of environmental noise problems.  They are not an easy fix to the problems faced by a student with APD.  As I have mentioned before, our various assistive devices do not remove our cure our problems, but rather, are part of the system of coping methods.

Why this Behavioural Observer isn’t a Behaviourist

I’ve spent hours observing and recording the actions and reactions of insects and humans. I’m a behavioural observer, but I don’t consider myself to be a Behaviourist. Despite the usefulness of Behaviourism for training animals (including humans) to perform particular tasks, I find that school of thought to be too limiting for understanding and helping people.

Some years ago when I was taking my MSc in entomology, I studied insect behaviour. One of the professors introduced us to Miller & Strickler’s “rolling fulcrum” model* for how insects respond. Essentially this idea states that there are internal factors (of varying strengths) that affect how much an insect responds to of excitatory or inhibitory stimuli. The example given was that even if you smell something really appetising, if you’re not hungry then you’re not going to eat it. It was presented as something profound, but my internal response was along the lines of, “Duh!” (My external response was to continue doodling triangular pursuit curves on the margins of my lecture notes.)

In other words, Read the rest of this entry »

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