Walk to School?

We live less than 1/2 a mile and two tiny streets away from the 9 year old’s school and she asked if it would be OK for her to walk to school on her own. I asked The Google what is the current thinking on 9 year olds walking to school? and was shocked by what it told me.

I expected to find mixed opinions – a few people fondly remembering how they walked a couple of miles across a field when they were five; some others wondering whether it may be too dangerous in this day and age; a pragmatic smattering suggesting that it depend on the maturity of your child but…nope. The People on the Internet were unamimous.


Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!

The WallAs I mentioned at our reunion, we had quite a few stories of teacher on pupil violence. Mine was best 🙂

It was the end of the third year (8th grade for the Americans)  and we had to pick our subjects for ‘O’ Level so Paul and I went to speak with Mr Lewis to get some advice.

As a result, we were late coming into Mrs Timm’s history class as we often were. But this time we had a rock-solid excuse.

So we milked it.

Mrs Timm [angry]: Where have YOU been?

Kevin [shame-faced]: Er….

Paul [shame-faced]: Ermm…

Kevin [frantic]: Where shall we say we were?

Paul [scheming]: What if we tell her we were talking to someone?

Kevin [relieved]: Sure. Who?

Paul [delighted]: How about we say we were talking to Mr Lewis?

Kevin [delighted]: OK. Let’s say that.

Paul & Kevin [together]: We were talking to Mr Lewis.

Mrs Timm [still angry]: You know I can check?

Kevin & Paul [together. shocked]: Er? Really?

Kevin [conspiring]: Shall we change our excuse?

Paul [assertive]: No. Let’s stick with Mr Lewis.

Paul & Me [together]: We were talking to Mr Lewis.

We forgot all about it as taunting Mrs Timm was just the usual harmless fun and, anyway, we were telling the truth.

We forgot about the incident until the next day when we heard the Tasmanian Devil coming up the stairs to room 41, four at a time. The door almost burst off its hinges and it wasn’t Taz. It was much worse.

It was Basher Lewis. And he was very, very angry.

Basher Lewis [very, very angry]: How dare you take my name in vain!

[Basher Lewis takes backhanded swing at Kevin. Kevin ducks. Basher Lewis misses]

[Basher Lewis tries a forehand and connects with Kevin’s cheek]

Basher Lewis [angrier]: Why…

[Basher Lewis hits Paul open-handed in right ear]

Basher Lewis [ibid]: did…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: you…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: lie…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: to…


Basher Lewis [ibid]: Mrs Timm????????????

[sound of sobbing from the girls in the next row]

Kevin: But…

Paul: We…

It’s hard to tell your side of the story when blows are raining down on your head and eventually our teacher, Mr Gooden, decided to intervene and walked us out of the class.

Don’t know what happened next with Mr Lewis but we never did get to tell our side of the story. Until now. I hope he reads it and feel guilty:-)

[I have another story with even more violence but that’ll have to wait for another day as I have to go check in for my flight]

Sozzlehurst and Hiccup

School coat of armsA long time ago, I went to a school called Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar. It was a good school: very academic and very sporty. Purple blazers. It was about as close to being a public (i.e. private) school that you could get without paying large sums of money. At one time, Chiselhurst and Sidcup was officially the second best school in the country (after Manchester Grammar).

Then one day the school became famous. Front page of every national newspaper. On the editorial pages for about a week. Suddenly, Chislehurst and Sidcup was a symbol for everything that was wrong with the country.

I was a part of that and this is my story.

I had already left school to join the Navy in 1982 but all of my friends were still in the sixth form when I came home for Christmas holiday. Come to the Christmas Party they said. Of course I said. Why wouldn’t I?

Make sure you bring beer my friends told me because we are only allowed beer, wine or cider. Nothing stronger. So I brought some beer. Most people did. Mr Gooden brought a couple of boxes of wine.

Mr Gooden saw me going into the sixth form centre where the party was to take place. Where are you going, Kevin? He asked. He checked my bag and, when he saw that it was only beer, he let me in.

The party was fantastic!

Spirits were high. Lots of dancing. Lots of singing. Apart from that one kid who threw up, no one really got drunk because we had all been having beer at birthday parties since we were thirteen.

The highlight for me was when Come On Eileen came on and everyone held hands in a big, boisterous circle and sang with lung-bursting joy. I got to hold hands with Jo Burston (who I had wanted to hold hands with for 4 years) and we danced together for the rest of the afternoon (and the next three years).

The rest of the vacation passed without incident – except that I started dating Jo Burston – and I went back to HMS Fisgard brim full with happy memories…

…until the second week of January.

Suddenly, our party was on the front page of every national newspaper. Every op-ed page had a stern reflection on alcohol in schools. A few papers had 6 page special features on the evils of drink. The Sun had an editorial cartoon.

Sozzlehurst and Hiccup

I called Jo that night to find out what was going on and she said she was suspended.

The whole sixth form had been gathered into the assembly hall and given a lecture. The headmaster called out some names of kids who admitted to being at the party and said they were suspended. Other kids then said I was at the party too then more kids (I imagine I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!) until finally the headmaster said everyone who was at the party should just go home because they were all suspended and the whole sixth form walked out.

Good times!

Teacher Relations

I hope it’s not bad taste to post a story about good versus bad teachers on a day when Santa Clara laid off 1000 teachers.


We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

On a day when my work colleagues and I were discussing appropriate metrics to track, I wonder…

….if you asked all school kids to list the teachers who mattered, what would be the coorelation between that list and the teachers that do well/badly on more traditional metrics (test scores)?

My Deepest Shame

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame.

The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

[It’s great that The Reader is not about the holocaust because I’d like to see it and my wife wouldn’t watch it with me if it were about the holocaust.]

In his first meander, Ebert uses Twain

That wise man Mark Twain told us: “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”

as an excuse to reel off a laundry list of Things He Believes

This is true. It is even sometimes true of me. Perhaps of you. However, there are certain areas in which I consider myself an authority, like the movies. I have devoted years to learning about the Theory of Evolution. I think Creationism is superstitious poppycock. I believe the problem with the literal interpretation of the Bible is that anyone can easily discover its support for the opinions they already hold. I believe Conservatism has proven itself disastrous every time it has been implemented in this country.

After meandering past speaking engagements, dinner parties, segregation and atheism – with every meander a gem – he ends up back at The Reader.

The Reader, Ebert says, [Spoiler Alert!] is about a woman’s wrongful conviction that she could have easily avoided if only she could overcome her shame about her inability to read. A key witness realizes this but fails to speak up because of his own shame that he had an affair with her.

This is where his essay gets interesting because it leads Ebert into a riff on the power of shame

We learn of young mothers who put their babies in dumpsters because they are ashamed of their pregnancy. Young fathers who murder their girlfriends, simply because of the universal human reality of pregnancy. We hear of prison guards who follow orders to torture, orders they know are illegal and immoral. And leaders who issue the orders. We learn of terrorists who die and kill others rather than face the shame of being frightened to. We hear of gang members who kill people unknown to them, not because they want to, but because they have been shamed into “proving” themselves as men. We hear of Wall Street executives who lead their firms into what they know are dangerous and unsound practices, because they would be shamed to be outdone by rival executives. They steal the savings from millions of victims, so they can win a pissing contest.

and ultimately triggers Ebert’s memory of a shameful episode in his own past. Ebert’s shame story is about cheating in a game of chess with a blind man who was his very good friend.

More than 40 years have passed since that game, but I have not forgotten it. I can never even think of the University of Cape Town without it coming to mind. My cheating itself was shameful. When I denied it, that was despicable. Herb, I hope someone reads this and tells you about it. You were right. Of course, you always knew you were right, and we both knew that I had lied.

Just reading that makes me feel that familiar burning sensation that heralds the unbidden return of my least favourite memory. Suddenly I am transported back to my fourth year Latin exam in Room 41 and

David Samuel is handing me his exercise book under the desk.

We are halfway through our end of year exams.

Our exams are kind of a big deal because, unlike America in 2009, in England circa 1981 the only thing we will have to show for all our years of schooling is a certificate that said how we performed in a bunch of exams that we’ll take at the end of the fifth year [maps to 10th grade – ed].

We do one of these six hour exams – an ‘O’ Level – for each subject we take (plus an oral for languages). I’m taking 9: English, English, Maths, Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, French and Latin.

Every year until now has ended with a solid battery of  two weeks of exams with 8 hours a day under exam conditions. Our grades throughout the year are based on classwork and homework but all that was tossed aside after the exams. Only the exam counts. The fourth year exams are special because they are a dress rehearsal for the real thing at the end of the fifth year.

For me, exams are a godsend. The laziest student ever (at least until I have children of my own), I have made avoiding work into an art-form. In the last two years of chemistry, I have written a total of three and a half pages of notes and have done no homework at all. I read computer magazines in Latin class and I am teaching myself BASIC in French. I am bottom of my class. In two weeks I will be top. Again. They stopped giving me ‘most improved student awards’ after four years of improving from worst to best every exam time.

Best of all, I genuinely enjoy exam time. We have no homework assigned and I have no need to study. The fact that I have no notes to study from is irrelevant. I will not open a book. Last Christmas, Miss Mills said that we should be studying about 6 hours a day by now. I have studied for less than 6 hours total in my whole life and Not At All for these exams.

Each subject has an essay-based exam and a quiz-based (occasionally multi-choice) exam. In Latin, it’s translations.

In class, we have translated Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Tacitus’ Histories, umpteen poems by each of Ovid, Horace and Catullus and the complete works of Pliny the Younger. In the exam, we’ll have to translate some 10 or 12 of these.

And now I’m sitting in the back row of room 41, next to David Samuel and, when I open the exam paper, I realize that I don’t know anything.

It’s easy to fake your way through translating French. It’s all “Ou est la place de la Concorde” but Latin is much more precise, more distant. More foreign… And you certainly can’t fake your way through poetry. They expect us to understand it.

David Samuel leans over, opens his bag and shows me that he has a book with all the translations. “Give it to me”, I signal. He smiles and hands it over. I copy just enough to save me from being booted out of Latin class because Mr Hickey doesn’t want bad students sullying his record.

That feeling of dread when I opened the exam paper inspired me to study for an exam for the first time in my life.

I still didn’t study for Maths or any of the sciences (all As, in case you are wondering) because they were easy. Nor did I study for English Lit as I had never got better than 8% and studying wasn’t going to make much difference. [I didn’t even read one of the assigned books – Brighton Rock – until I was 23. When I did finally read it, I fell in love with Graham Greene and have now read all of his books. If I had read it at 15 like I was supposed to, I might’ve gotten a better grade at ‘O’ Level but I might’ve hated Greene and never read him again.]

But I did study Latin.


I memorized the translations of every single one of those histories, poems, legal documents and letters to the Emperor Trajan [except Pliny X.96 – the one about the Christians, but that’s a story for a different day].

I still remember many of them now

That Suffenus, whom we know well Varus,
Is a charming, witty and sophisticated man.
Yet at the same time he writes more verse that anyone else.

Not, as usually happens, on second class papyrus.
He uses new papyrus, all ruled with lead and smoothed with pumice…

But, more than the poems, I remember the shame because it eats into my conception of who I am. I have barely spoken with David Samuel since that day but I don’t think I could even look him in the eye if I saw him again.

Worse still, he was the boyfriend (and may have married?) of my girlfriend’s best friend. I imagine him telling Sarah who tells Jo, remember Kevin? The kid who was good at exams? He was a cheat. I saw him. He used to take books into all the exams.

David Samuel’s mum used to work with my mum. They were very competitive about their offspring as mothers often are. What if David’s mum knows I am a cheat?

I never cheated again but that once was enough to give me a lifetime of shame.

The common element of all these shame stories leads me to propose the following thesis:

Our greatest shame arises when we do something that is not just bad but that conflicts with our image of ourselves.

Ebert’s is bleaker:

I believe the movie may be demonstrating a fact of human nature: Most people, most of the time, all over the world, choose to go along. We vote with the tribe. What would we have done during the rise of Hitler? If we had been Jews, we would have fled or been killed. But what if we were one of the rest of the Germans?

It’s a shame that the move is about the holocaust because I’d really like to go see it but my normal movie going companion won’t take me so it will be condemmed to my Netflix queue where it will fester until it finally arrives and sits on the shelf for three weeks because I can only watch those movies after everyone else has gone to bed which seems to get later and later as the years go by.

It’s a shame, I tell you.


For whom?

I just read Alan Kay’s Early History of Smalltalk. It was timely for me because Brian Marick’s mention of the New Math put me in auto-rant mode on how schools optimize for students who are unlikely to excel in the subjects they are being taught.

One of the themes of Alan Kay’s sparkling career has been to try to make computers accessible to children as a learning tool and his history is full of little anecdotes about how he would teach Smalltalk to twelve year-olds and they would spontaneously invent stuff.

What was so wonderful about this idea were the myriad of children’s projects that could spring off the humble boxes. And some of the earliest were tools! This was when we got really excited. For example, Marion Goldeen’s (12 yrs old) painting system was a full-fledged tool. A few years later, so was Susan Hamet’s (12 yrs old) OOP illustration system (with a design that was like the MacDraw to come). Two more were Bruce Horn’s (15 yrs old) music score capture system and Steve Ptz’s (15 yrs old) circuit design system. Looking back, this could be called another example in computer science of the “early success syndrome.”

I get the impression though that Kay thought of this as a failure as he was looking to revolutionize education as a whole rather than train the next generation of super-geniuses (like himself).

The successes were real, but they weren’t as general as we thought. They wouldn’t extend into the future as strongly as we hoped. The children were chosen from the Palo Alto schools (hardly an average background) and we tended to be much more excited about the successes than the difficulties. In part, that we were seeing was the “hack phenomenon,” that, for any given pursuit, a particular 5% of the population will jump into it naturally, while the 80% or so who can learn it in time do not find it at all natural.

I wonder how he feels now when he looks back?

Alan Kay, along with his team at Xerox Parc, invented a huge chunk of the technology that has made modern computing successful.  But computers have still not had much impact on the way kids are taught. When they are not used as glorified textbooks, they are used to teach PowerPoint skills and word-processing.

I wonder if he would have had more success if he had optimized for the kids who are excited about computers? The sweet spot for his glorious Squeak seems to me to be kids who find joy in creating and exploring. I wonder what would have happened if he had stuck with that 5% who jumped in naturally instead of trying to satisfy a broader audience? (If someone runs into him, can you ask him for me?)

The rest of Kay’s paper is well worth a read. It’s inspirational despite its underlying theme of if only they had listened to us. He was telling his bosses at Xerox in 1971 that

In the 1990’s there will be millions of personal computers. They will be the size of notebooks of today, have high-resolution flat-screen reflective display.s, weigh less than ten pounds, have ten to twenty times the computing and storage capacity of an Alto. Let’s call them Dynabooks.

The purchase price will be about that of a color television set of the era, although most of the machines will be given away by manufacturers who will be marketing the content rather than the container of personal computing.

He talks a lot about education and about constructionist ideas and about how schools didn’t teach real world skills.

The general topic was education and it was the first time I heard Marvin Minsky speak. He put forth a terrific diatribe against traditional education methods, and from him I heard the ideas of Piaget and Papert for the first time. Marvin’s talk was about how we think about complex situations and why schools are really bad places to learn these skills. He didn’t have to make any claims about computer+kids to make his point. It was clear that education and learning had to be rethought in the light of 20th century cognitive psychology and how good thinkers really think.

He ends on a sad note

When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse vandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers. A counter to this is to generate enormous disatisfaction with one’s designs using the entire history of human art as a standard and goal. Then the trick is to decouple the disatisfaction from self worth–otherwise it is either too depressing or one stops too soon with trivial results.

Not sure whether he is advocating that we compare our efforts with the entire history of human art and become inevitably dissatisfied or to go ahead and compare and be happy anyway.

School Science Fairs

[Here’s a post that I started about 2 years ago and probably will never finish – which is a shame because it would’ve been a good one….]

I always look forward to the Science Fair because …

…. rant about baking soda volcanos

…. rant about the winner is a model

…. discussion about benefit of helping kids

…. follow-up post about constructionism

… a bit about Jazz’s piano teacher

Best Teacher I Ever Had

My lovely wife sent me this:

Mr. Whitson taught sixth-grade science. On the first day of class, he gave us a lecture about a creature called the cattywampus, an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the Ice Age. He passed around a skull as he talked. We all took notes and later had a quiz.

When he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some mistake! I had written down exactly what Mr. Whitson said. Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What had happened?

Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made up all the stuff about the cattywampus. There had never been any such animal. The information in our notes was, therefore, incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers?

Needless to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what kind of teacher?


I wish I had had a teacher like that!

By an odd coincidence, I gave Dylan the lecture last night about how teachers are often wrong and you need to think critically about what they are telling you. Sometimes they make mistakes.
Sometimes you just heard them wrong. Either way, critical thinking helps you see through them.

Like maths?

When I was at grammar school, I used to rank the subjects according to how ‘like maths‘ they were.

We were taught chemistry, physics and biology as separate subjects and, while I enjoyed all the sciences, I enjoyed physics the most because it was more mathematical. Chemistry had less maths and biology, at that level, hardly any at all. In my 11 year old mind, physics was pretty much just applied maths and therefore fun.

In geography, we covered such topics as map reading, how rocks are formed and weather but I never thought of it as science because science was something I enjoyed and I didn’t enjoy geography. Geography had a little bit of counting, measuring and charting but less maths than the sciences. History had no maths at all and I hated it.

At Dylan’s school, they have a single subject called science and they cover such topics as map reading, how rocks are formed and weather. Dylan hates it. In 7th grade he’ll do life science but he already knows he’ll hate it because he hates science. It’s like they want to avoid exposing kids to the hard sciences until it’s too late. Until they have formed an opinion one way or the other.

I have this theory that the people who design school curricula don’t really like science or maths but they know it’s important to the economy and that not enough people are following science careers. The remedy? Make the science in schools appealing to people who don’t like science!

I wonder if they stop to consider the effect it has on people who actually like science? If a kid likes science would making it less science-y make him like it more or less?

I know the answer for me and I know the answer for Dylan. Maths good. Science good. The more the better.