Looking stupid for the kids

From a very young age, kids are told that they’re not capable of making decisions for themselves.  Moms and dads like to speak for their children, teachers like to tell the kids to sit down and be quiet, and older people generally think that teenagers are all either going to murder or have sex with anything that moves.  Fortunately, the story goes, as soon as you get older (18, 21, or something like that), you magically have conferred upon you the wisdom to make your own choices.

I understand the general sentiment here.  I doubt anybody thinks that kids have the experience to make all of the decisions that affect them.  However, kids are able to make decisions from a very early age, and as they grow older they get better and better at it.

The reason I bring this up is that when we tell kids that only adults can fully make good decisions, we clearly show ourselves to be out to lunch.  Here are some examples from the past week about how we adults do a staggeringly poor job of making good choices:

  • Ted Cruz gave a big speech in front of the Republican National Convention to not endorse Donald Trump for president.  I completely understand why Mr. Cruz would loathe Mr. Trump, but it’s hard to imagine why he thought he had been allowed to speak in the first place.
  • Wikileaks showed that the Democratic National Committee, while trying to appear unbiased, actively tried to torpedo Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.  And, by the way, badmouthed their donors while doing so.
  • Members of both parties have been fervently ranting about how awful Hillary Clinton is.  I don’t like her either, but screaming/heckling during the conventions doesn’t make anybody look like they’re interested in making a good point.

I give these examples not because I’m a fan of either Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton, but because these examples show how seriously we adults treat the election of the next president of the United States.  Yep, we seem to think that screaming about how Mr. Trump is a Nazi, or about how Ms. Clinton is a criminal, is a good way to select the leader of the free world.

How can a kid not feel like we’ve been pretending to be rational the whole time?

Here’s a challenge for everybody during the next few weeks and months:

  • Let a child make a decision.  It can be a big decision or a little one, but make sure he or she actually gets to practice thinking for themselves.
  • Let a child see you being reasonable.  If there’s something you need to figure out, let a child see that you’re using reason to solve the problem.  That is, after all, what we want them to do.
  • Special election challenge:  Don’t be an idiot.  If you’re a supporter of Mr. Trump, try to make your case without referring to Ms. Clinton as corrupt or as a criminal.  If you’re a supporter of Ms. Clinton, try to make your case without calling Mr. Trump an inexperienced loose-cannon.  In other words, try to focus on what you believe, rather than on what you hate.

And, as always, get out of the swimming pool if you hear thunder.

Homeschool (?)

I just read an interesting article about homeschooling on one of the many Gawker-branded sites.  Though I’m not a homeschooler myself, I have talked back and forth with several homeschoolers in the past few weeks who have convinced me that it’s doable.  Not something that I want to do, but something that can be done if people have the right motivation and interest.

In any case, have a read here:  http://adequateman.deadspin.com/a-normal-parents-guide-to-homeschooling-1782287817.  It may not be your cup of tea, but it’ll at least give you an idea of where homeschoolers are coming from.


We’ve all seen news stories that involve the arrest of students for carrying weapons.  A 6-year-old boy was sent to an alternative school for troubled youth after taking a cub scout multitool to school (link).  Two high school students were arrested for having knives in their car in the school parking lot (link).  We’ve read the stories in the paper and wondered how kids could get in trouble for such incidents.

At the same time, nobody wants kids to have weapons in school.  Clearly, the possession of weapons is dangerous and can cause serious incidents.  Given these contradictory positions, what should we do?

It’s simple:  Strictly ban weapons in schools.  At the same time, define the word “weapon.”

It’s fortunate for us that these have both already been done.  It’s obvious that weapons are banned in schools by the universal policies against weapons possession.  Unfortunately, the term “weapon” isn’t very clear.

Here it is, according to most sources (though I use a Wikipedia quote because the Creative Commons license allows it):

A weapon, arm, or armament is any device used with intent to inflict damage or harm to living beings, structures, or systems. 

In other words, a weapon is not a thing.  Instead, a weapon is a thing intended to cause harm to other things.

Most of the things that have caused school punishments have been tools, which are objects designed to get something done.  This is an important distinction.  While all weapons are tools (they’re designed to do something), all tools are not weapons (in that a tape measure can’t be used to murder somebody).

This is an important distinction in this age of zero tolerance.  Let’s go back to the examples I mentioned earlier:

  • The six-year-old boy’s knife was actually a Cub Scout multitool that contained a knife, fork, and spoon for the purposes of eating on campouts.  In other words, it was a tool for eating.
  • The high school kids busted for knives in their cars had just been fishing and used their pocketknives to cut fishing line.  In other words, they were recreational tools.

I figured I’d take a look at a list of worldwide knife-related deaths in schools over the past 20 years.  What I found was interesting.  Of the 34 incidents that warranted mention, only four of them were committed by students.  Another four incidents were committed by teachers or staff, with the remaining 26 committed by adults who came into the school.

Not exactly an unstoppable wave of student violence.

However, no matter how we spin it, we come back to the issue of “how do we know the difference between a weapon and a tool in the hands of a student?”  The answer:  Context.

Let’s have a look at some possible examples, and the sorts of judgements we can make about them:

  • A student with a Swiss Army Knife is very unlikely to use this tool to stab another student to death (note:  In my research I found that only one folding knife has been used in a school assault in the past 20 years – in the entire world.)  As a result, students with Swiss Army Knives should be left alone.
  • A student with a machete is probably using it as a weapon.  Common sense tells us that there aren’t many jungles to cut paths through in most high schools, which means that the most likely use for this tool is as a weapon.
  • A student with a gun in a school can be assumed to be using this as a weapon for harming others.  This isn’t because guns are inherently evil – it’s because there’s no legitimate purpose for anybody unrelated to law enforcement to have a gun in schools.  Guns may not be evil, but it’s safe to assume that people who wave them around probably are.

Of course, there are gray areas here.  What if a student went deer hunting and left a rifle in their car?  What happens if a gang member brings a sharpened screwdriver to school? These circumstances don’t require rules to sort them out – they require common sense. If common sense isn’t enough to work things out, the legal system is nicely designed to work it out for us.

This common sense approach can be applied to zero tolerance policies in general.  For example, drugs should be forbidden in schools, while medication should not.  The kids above who got busted for having knives in their car were also in trouble for possessing drugs, namely Advil.  I’ve also heard of kids getting busted for possession of cough drops and nasal spray.  Anybody who seriously thinks these are worthy of the same treatment as heroin is seriously out to lunch.

I’ve mentioned common sense above, but this leads to a very reasonable question:  Whose common sense should be used to judge permissible from impermissible items?  That’s simple:  Ours.

Teachers and administrators should be be the judges of what is permissible and what is not.  We teachers are supposedly professionals whose job is to use our best judgement to assist our students in learning and growing as individuals.  If a teacher can’t tell the difference between a penknife and a broadsword, perhaps they should find a less-challenging profession.

Realistically, I don’t expect these reforms to ever be enacted.  To enable them would make politicians seem soft on crime and would force them to admit that teachers aren’t the cause of all society’s ills.  However, wouldn’t it be nice if we were allowed to use common sense?






$79 PC?

I’ve talked before about the use of cheap PCs in classrooms.  I’ve posted about how much money school districts would save if they built their own computers (spoiler: a lot) and discussed the use of Chromebooks as well. Today I’ve got another possibility:  The $79 Endless Mini PC (link).

Designed for developing markets, this mini PC is similar to a lot of the “let’s give everybody a computer” programs that have popped up over the years.  The processor is a sort-of-OK ARM processor and the computer has 1 GB RAM and 24-32 GB hard drive.  The usual ports are stuck to the back and it runs its own version of Linux.  Think of it as an updated version of the old “One Laptop Per Child” program of ten or so years ago.

A workable but unremarkable computer, this computer would probably need another $100 or so in peripherals to make it usable in schools. However, given that it uses Linux (which can be updated nearly forever) and that the peripherals will rarely need replacing, this is a pretty good substitute for even the cheapest PCs that are out there.

Anyhow, if you haven’t got a lot of cash for your school’s computer program, this provides yet another option.

We are destroying the sun!

Woodland, NC is in an area where solar farms have been built in the past and future solar farms are planned.  Unfortunately, the people of Woodland have identified a problem with them:  They are stealing energy from the sun, which will eventually drain it of power.  Story.

Incidentally, this opinion was held by many present at a town council meeting, which resulted in a vote declaring a moratorium on new solar farm construction.

Friends, this is why we need to demand quality science education.

The emoji of death

An interesting tale of zero tolerance:

A school in Pueblo, Colorado was hugely affected when a third grader sent an email full of random emoji.  These emoji contained knives, guns, and bombs, but also cows, smiley faces, grinning faces, sad faces and sheep.  This email was inadvertently sent to all students at the school (story).

Lest you think that this is a case of overreaction, please try to remember that it’s not the symbols but the message that you need to consider in such things.  The director of communications for Pueblo schools, Dalton Sprouse, analyzed the message and commented that it was…

“extremely random in a non-threatening manner.”

Weird.  Maybe it’s just my opinion, but if you’re going to be scared of the world, doesn’t it make sense to at least find something that normal people would be scared of?