Education is Wasted on the Youth

One of the great lines from the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is when a man on his front porch, after listening to a long, meandering conversation between George Banks and his girl as they stroll down the sidewalk, stands to his feet and shouts: “Why don’t you go ahead and kiss her?” Disgusted by George’s verbose-ness while staring at a beautiful young woman, the man concludes, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”

It’s a sentiment I’ve thought about a lot, especially in the context of education.

I have pondered many times how if I could go back to school now – wow – the things that I would learn!

In all honesty, I really didn’t learn much in high school. I look at what my high schoolers are learning now and the comparison isn’t remotely fair. I got “Ds” in science. My biology teacher droned on about all the rock concerts he went to and how his entire bedroom was covered wall to wall in concert t-shirts. Well, what do you know? I guess I did learn something. If I was struggling in a class, there was no help but at least I got to play baseball after school. The best class, most useful class, without a doubt the class which I have used more than any other in high school was a class called “Business.”  For six weeks, I learned to type fairly well on an electric typewriter, having no clue that within ten years I’d have a laptop which would require those very skills I attained. Those six weeks changed everything in the future for me. I can’t imagine if I didn’t learn how to type proficiently. Besides that, what did I learn? I think my high school English teacher was a drunk, or at least those were the rumors.

My kids’ education has surpassed mine in every way possible. They might struggle in classes like I did, but they have already learned and have been exposed to so much more than I ever did at that age.

The problem is, do they know it? Do they understand the opportunity they have  right now? Probably not. That’s how things work. We don’t know what we have until later.

If I could go back in time and re-do school based upon what I know now, I could be brilliant. There are so many topics that I’m interested in. Back then, there was only two: baseball and eating. But now, I love politics, and English, and history, and global issues, and culture, and language. What great questions I would have for my teachers! (Would they know the answers?) I do think that I could even be a little bit interested in science. Or at least I have enough questions about scientific topics to keep me interested.

Schooling is wasted on the youth! Adults need schooling just as much!

Of course, it actually isn’t wasted. It’s part of the cycle. Learn how to learn even if you don’t learn much the first time around, but hopefully the youth of today will take that small spark and  let it ignite into an explosion of knowledge sometime in the future. And hopefully adults won’t look back and wonder what could have been, but rather will realize that it’s never to late to learn, grow, and mature.

So education might have been wasted on your youth, but don’t let it be wasted in your adulthood.

(I still would like to improve my high school grades. Maybe someday that time machine will be a reality.)

I Moonlight as a History Teacher

I suppose there’s a fair dose of irony in that headline, since teaching is my full-time job, and I do love it. But it is hard to turn off the writer, and it’s not even possible. (at least for me) So as I was re-writing my US History syllabus for this year, it struck me how lucky I am. I was able to completely re-design my history course to best suit my students and learning environment. I’m not sure how many teachers have such freedom. What it enabled me to do was to be creative in my approach and stop lecturing, allowing the students “to do” history. It was a lot of fun when I did it last year, and I’m doing it again this year. Here’s the section from the syllabus of what I’m trying to accomplish. I think it’s pretty cool. Does it sound like a history class you would enjoy?



Why read a textbook about slavery when you can read a vivid chapter from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

Why listen to a teacher take about Andrew Carnegie when we can watch the empire he built through gripping state-of-the-art engaging videos?

Why have a student take notes about Jim Crow laws when they can research and present for themselves how they understand them?

These three questions, and many else like them have re-fueled my love for teaching US History. (Or perhaps I just got sick of hearing my own voice every year)

I’m more excited than ever to see history come alive. It’s not a group of static words sitting in the back corner of a library. History is alive. Our understanding of history is always changing. New discoveries and analyses continue to defy the conventional wisdom. We continue to learn and understand how the past has shaped us.

So my goal for this class is for students “to do” history. How will that take place? By reading original documents and readings which will change our perspectives of the time periods well beyond a contrite paragraph in a history book. We’ll be reading selections from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Up from Slavery”, and “Black Like Me”, among others.

We will be watching engaging films like “Amistad” and high-tech documentaries like “The Robber Barons.” This is high drama stuff! No sleeping here!

And we’ll be putting the learning back into the hands of the students, guiding them on incredible journeys of history, where they will be researching, creating, and presenting what they have been learning to others.

The overall objective of the course is to create a hands-on environment where history comes alive, where we can conjecture and give opinions, where we can argue and have fun, all the while better understanding where we came from.

This is my goal. Let’s hope we can accomplish it.

s is my goal. Let’s hope we can accomplish it.

Public Shame in Education: Some Cultures Use It

This article about a teacher being terminated for supposedly “bullying” a bully made me think about an amusing incident when I was living in Vietnam.

I know nothing about the situation in the article, so I cannot comment whether the school administrators were right or not. However, the contrast in the educational philosophies between the United States and Vietnam are quick stark when you hear what happened to me.

When we were living in Thai Nguyen, Vietnam back in the late 1990s, we enrolled our eldest daughter in a Vietnamese grammar school. (I will have to post photos another day) My blonde-haired daughter was the only foreigner in the whole school. She learned all her subjects in Vietnamese, making lots of friends and becoming proficient in the language.

After several months of daily school activities, we received a note from the teacher that she would be holding a parent-teacher conference and that all parents, with their students were expected to attend.

I showed up to the classroom on a Saturday morning to find everyone there at the same time. We each filed into the room and were asked to sit down in the small desks as the teacher came to the teaching platform and greeted everyone.

Then to my amazement, the conference began. In Vietnam, everyone has a parent-teacher conference at the same time in front of everyone else.

The teacher began going down her list, talking about various students and their strengths and weaknesses. Let me reiterate: IN FRONT OF EVERYONE!

It was fascinating.

And then she came upon the name of one particularly naughty boy. She began to scold his parents because of his lazy attitude and how he wasn’t working hard enough.

This was getting good!

And then she added this: “And Mr. —, your son is doing poorly with his math. Look at Brittany. She is a foreigner. And she is only learning the Vietnamese language, but she is doing better work than your son!”

I gulped. I looked at the father’s face and he beaming with a grin from ear to ear. The other parents were laughing and looking at him, and I just had this awkward feeling in the back of my throat.

Talk about peer pressure! The father kept smiling, and left the scene without making a fuss. But I am sure that that little boy had the whipping of his life when he got home. I’m also sure that his grades and effort dramatically increased from there on out.

Public shame and humiliation is a powerful weapon that a Vietnamese teacher will use. Why? Because a Vietnamese teacher has the power. The teacher has status. The teacher is revered and respected. When the teacher calls someone out, behavior changes will be made.

I’m not sure public shame in America would do any good, but the underlying values and philosophy of the two systems at least should give us reason to think.


The Best Way to Learn a Language: Follow YOUR Goals

The methodologies of language learning are as various and self-inflated as political opinions on Capitol Hill. Every language guru thinks her method is the best, the truest, the most sure-fire way to conquer a new language in 30 days, or six months, or one year.

I’d like to make this declaration: all language methodologies are true and all language methodologies are false.

There’s no right or wrong. There’s only you. You, the learner, is all that matters when it comes to language learning. The best methodology is the one that fits your goals and follows your path and drive. If a language methodology does that, then it will work.

I’ve been a language teacher and a language learner at many different junctures of my life, and what I learned from being a student of language is that most teachers simply teach with their accustomed methodology – their language way is the one that will work for everyone regardless of whether it will or not and regardless of whether it feeds into the language learner’s goals.

Before I expound on this point, I want to highlight two distinct periods of language learning which I had in my own life. The first one is my formalized learning of French in high school and college, and the second one being my learning of Vietnamese while I lived in Vietnam.

I spent four and half years learning French in 8th to 12th grades. I picked French because my older sister had studied French. I had no goals with the language other than trying to get decent grades. I was taught French is a very teacher-centered way. Repeat after me. Write this down. Copy this. Conjugate that. I got decent grades in high school French. For my language requirement in college, it was foolish, in my mind, to try a different language since I was rocking my high school French grades. So I continued with the same type of methodology and I got excellent grades in college.

Six years of studying French: What did I get? A few phrases, some conjugated verbs, and a lot of good grades. What I didn’t have was a new language I could speak. Those courses did nothing for me. Granted, I had no goals for French other than to pass the course and receive the required credit.

Honestly, it was all a waste of time.

My second  language learning experience was completely different. I moved to Vietnam in 1994 and it became immediately, painfully obvious that no one around me spoke English. I would have to adapt and learn if I wanted to live. My immediate goals for language learning was to go to the market and successfully buy food. Talk about motivation!

I gathered vocab from books and friends. I asked people how to say them. I recorded and practiced basic sentences and words. In no time, I was saying basic market sentences and bringing home the right food. A good start.

Over the first three years of my language learning in Vietnam, I collected a lot of vocabulary, went to a language teacher once a week to practice, and tried to do the best I could. But it wasn’t enough. I needed more to conquer this difficult, six-tone language. So I enrolled in a local language school to learn Vietnamese full-time for one year.

I had one instruction for my teacher on the first day of my one-on-one class: never speak to me in English. Week after week led to month after month and before I knew it, I had come to the realization that I had become a speaker of Vietnamese. Six years learning French and I couldn’t find my way around a Julia Child’s cookbook. Six months of learning Vietnamese in Vietnam, I was fluent.

Of course the differences are stark, but what I have come to learn is that it’s all about your goals for language learning. This is the make or break issue in whether you will be a successful second language learning or not. Your goals will drive your passion and your methodology, so here are my suggestions as to  how to get the most of truly learning a language well.

1) Identify why you want to learn a language.

2) Make a personal learning plan, listing what you want to accomplish in this language.

3) Find a language tutor – not teacher – who will be moldable to your desires and goals. This is a the key. Don’t trust a regular language teacher who has their ideas about what you should learn and when. Now this isn’t to say that you can’t learn a language with a teacher. Of course, you can. However, I contend (with absolutely no research to back it up) that a self-motivated, self-produced, and self-sustaining plan with a tutor who will back you up and do what you ask will be extremely effective.

4) Keep, whatever plan you chose, focused on practical aspects of the language. Focus on listening. Be active in your approach, use what you are learning. Embrace mistakes, laugh at yourself and learn, learn, learn.

This is, in my humble opinion, a great way to go about learning a language. I’ll have some future posts which will get more specific on the how such as some possible learning acquisition plans which can help you get the most out of your language adventures.


Let Kids be Kids. Let College be College.

I’m an educator. I want kids to succeed in this world. I want them to work hard, learn difficult concepts and idealistically walk into the world like they can make a difference. I want them to be productive for themselves and in return for society as a whole. I want them to be cutting edge and do amazing things that my generation never was able to do. I want to push them to do their best.

But give me a break: let kids be kids and let college be college.

I’ve seen it too often, and living in an Asian context it can be over the top. What is the ‘it’ I am referring to? Schooling. Education. We are creating a whole generation of kids who have been gypped of half their childhood because they are being pushed too hard.


How about AP courses? The Advanced Placement courses where kids can earn college credit for taking rigorous courses in high school. Let’s be honest here, isn’t this just a get rich quick scheme by the College Board? I mean, I wonder how colleges and universities like it to have this omnipresent educational organization scarfing a lot of their tuition money by giving kids college credit in high school?  Maybe I’m being a little too harsh, but I’ve seen too many kids pushed to the brink to over-achieve in high school.

When I was in high school, I barely had 30 minutes of homework a day. And look how I turned out! Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. But I remember when a kid’s life was more about playing with tadpoles in the creek rather than cramming six hours of homework down their brain each night after being in school for eight hours.

You think I exaggerate. I barely exaggerate.

If teachers can’t teach what they need to teach in 8 hours, then shame on them. Don’t condemn the students to hours or purgatory every night just because the College Board says so.

And then we have the little issue of “tuition” – not the American word meaning the school fees – the other “tuition” meaning additional classes outside the regular school day. This is rampant in Asia – 8 hour of school isn’t enough. Many student will go for many more hours to bone up on other academic issues which their parents deem to be lacking during the regular school day.  I’ve heard dozens of horror stories about a high school student’s life in Korea – extreme pressure – families barely seeing each other during the week because it’s not uncommon for students to go to school and then tuition until midnight or later on a daily basis.

When I was in high school, I came home around 3pm. I usually watched a some soap opera with my Mom after I came home, and possibly an after school special. Then I went out on the front porch with my glove and tennis ball and played catch by throwing the ball against the wall. Then I had dinner, played some basketball with some friends, watched Entertainment Tonight or a MASH rerun before settling in to prime time TV or catch a ballgame on the radio. I had a whole seven hours to explore and enjoy everyday. I was able to be a kid when I was a kid.

And then when I went to college, guessed what I did? I became a college student.

Preparing kids for college is not wrong. There are good ways that parents can do this and it might include taking an AP class here or there. But I’m afraid we have tipped the scale too far in the other direction and in the process we are stealing half of our kids’ lives.

And that’s too bad.

It’s okay for a kid to be a kid.

That’s why we have college. We can be a college student once we arrive there. We have twelve years to prepare them. It’s okay to breathe and let our kids breathe too.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Is this an opinionated question? (An example from Truman & the A-bomb)

As a teacher, sometimes I’m asked this question about the questions I ask my students: “Is this an opinionated question?”

“Yes it is,” I reply.

“So you can’t mark it off, right? It’s just an opinion.”

“Oh no, you can most definitely get it wrong.”

“But how can an opinion be wrong?”

“Perhaps an opinion can’t be wrong. But an opinion can be poorly researched and bereft of logical reasoning. Therefore, it can be wrong.”

They usually don’t respond after I use the word ‘bereft’, and they go about their business in answering the question.

People, of course, are entitled to whatever opinion they want, but all opinions are not created equally. For example, take this exam question:

Was Truman justified in dropping the A-bomb on Japan?

There’s no right or wrong answer, and there are people who hold extremely polarized views of this issue. But there are poorly reasoned and supported answers, even by those who demonstrate passion on this issue.

How about this: “Truman was an inhumane person who ultimately killed upwards of a half-million people with two A-bombs. He should have been tried for war crimes.”

That may indeed be someone’s opinion, but they’d get low marks in my class for such shoddy reasoning because they have failed to demonstrate the ability to understand both sides of the issue in a non-inflammatory way. A response as is written above shows little understanding of WWII and the Pacific Theatre in specific. It is an emotional appeal resting only on the fact that lots of people died, so therefore it’s bad. Yes, it’s true that when lots of people die, it’s bad, but that is drastically over-simplistic.It would be the same type of opinion which might equate Naziism with Trumanism because, after all, didn’t both of them kill a lot of people. Of course, level-headed people would see that there is in fact a huge difference.

What about an opinion on the other side of the same issue?

“Truman was justified for dropping the bomb because the Japanese were savages and didn’t deserve anything but death.”

This opinion is also inflammatory in an unnecessary way. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been people who have had this opinion. The problem with this opinion is that it too is simplistic and emotional, only taking into the account the barbarity of the Pacific battles. It shows no understanding of Japanese militarism, Japanese culture, or the human cost of such an undertaking as dropping the A-bomb.

But it is entirely possible to craft good and solid opinions which would support both sides of this equation.

It’s not so difficult for an American who spends time talking to a member of the Greatest Generation to see that the A-bomb was the right move. The casualty estimates of a US led invasion of the Japanese homeland were staggering. Based on what the US forces faced in places like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; Americans learned that the Americans that the Japanese would not surrender. The Japanese home front was bracing for invasion with every man, woman, and child ready to defend to the death. It may have cost one half-million American soldier casualties to completely defeat them. It also would most certainly have cost millions of Japanese lives. So when Truman was confronted with an alternative, it was quite simple. Two bombs in three days and the war was over. No contest.

But what about the other side. Truman was not justified because … I have heard arguments that once Okinawa was taken, there was no need to invade right away. Truman could have put Japan under threat of nuclear bomb – could have given a demonstration of its power in an underpopulated area – could have used blockades and threats against the emperor – could have waited longer for the Soviets to surround the north … etc … Some may question the validity and effectiveness of such ideas, but on humanitarian grounds, these are solid opinions that could at least be discussed.

So I hope through this example that we can see how tangible and helpful dialogue about opinionated questions can be achieved without allowing the type of inflammatory remarks which are so prevalent in this day and age. Opinions matter when they are reasoned out in logical ways and supported with fact and concrete examples.

“If we could only do the arts everyday and forget about things like science.”

I had a delightfully long drama rehearsal with two young actors this afternoon. We put in a good hour and a half on a nine minute sketch we are working on. As we finished, one of the actors commented how she has to go home and wade through a 13 page biology study guide for a test in the morning.

We all kind of shuddered at the thought, and then I asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could just focus on the arts all the time and forget the other stuff?”

You should have seen their faces light up! Though the one actor clarified that the arts needed to be expanded to include creative writing, and I, of course, wholeheartedly agreed.

Some people just aren’t wired for the hard sciences. I know I’m not. I’m glad other people are or we would still be living as cavemen.

I’ve often thought that perhaps there is a better way to do school for some people – a way where they can thrive, explore, create, and learn to act, perform, do.

I was reading a post a while back from one of my former students and she said how school is crushing creativity. School is pouring useless facts into their heads, and giving them waste-of-time assignments while not allowing them to create and explore areas of interest where they thrive and where they show the most potential.

To a certain degree, I agree. I understand the need to expose everyone to some level of understanding in the various disciplines. But if I can dream for a minute, wouldn’t it be cool to have a performing arts semester for those who are inclined towards such endeavors. Wouldn’t it be amazing to spend day after day, writing, acting, honing skills, creating shows and productions, and then take the group on the road to expose them to the thrills and hardships of the performing arts? Wouldn’t it be amazing for them to learn about expenditures and income by looking at the box office receipts of their particular show? Wouldn’t it be a challenge to see their script and performances critiqued by bloggers and theatre reviewers? Wouldn’t it be invigorating to sit down with a group of professional actors for a week or two and do extended workshops? Wouldn’t it be gratifying to have everyone learn about lighting, sound, and other technical aspects?

Wouldn’t one concentrated semester on the arts change the way they would look at their world?

I do hope that someday this group of talented, creative kids I work with, and the many others around the world, will have a better opportunity to thrive in the arts for a long period of time as part of their schooling. It would be an amazing way to reach a large group of kids through a powerful teaching method.

After all, shouldn’t all learning be practical?