Urban Debate

For those of you who don’t know, I met all of our fellow stonesoupers through a league called the American Parliamentary Debate Assosciation. Well, it’s another year, and that means more debate, except it’s a little different this time.

While all of us are done with APDA save Alex, I’m continuing my involvement with debate this year in a different capacity. I’m going to be mentoring for the Boston Debate League. This isn’t your average prep school league which flies across the country all the time, debating on the national circuit. Rather, BDL is an extension of UDL or the Urban Debate League. Basically, each week I’m going to go out and coach kids about a rudimentary form of policy debate, in order to further prepare them for their studies. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention anything about them getting better at debate as that’s not at all important. Many of these kids read at a grade level several years behind, and are generally ill-equipped to go onto any sort of college education, let alone find decent employment in some cases. However, debate seems to have a drastic effect on these kids; according to BDL, those individuals who stay with the program are 46% more likely to graduate from high school.

A few weeks ago, I was actually able to see this kind of improvement in action. I worked for BDL at their annual summer camp which takes place at Suffolk law school, and for a week I had a group of 18 kids who were basically mine to mold. The leaps and bound by which I saw these kids progress was nothing short of inspiring. These kids went from not knowing how to spell basic words like marriage, to talking about Hamid Karzai and Afghan counter-insurgency policy inside a week. Even more amazing, some of them actually seemed to have a pretty decent handle on the material and were generating arguments of their own. Aside from being a transformative experience for the kids, it was also a transformative experience for me. Up until that point, I had studied diligently for the LSAT with every expectation of going to law school next fall. However, after teaching these kids for a week I suddenly realized, that teaching these kids was the only job I’ve ever really enjoyed. I immediately stopped studying for the LSAT and am now applying for teaching programs for next year. It’s a radical change to my life plan, but I’ve never felt better about it. After all, if it doesn’t work out, I can always apply to law school in a year or two.

Anyway, I’d like to leave you all with a question. While I did get some ideas from the BDL camp on how to appropriately convey often dense sets of information to kids while keeping it fun, I’d love for some more tips if anyone has them. Thus, has anyone had any particularly good experiences in teaching kids, or any tricks they’d like to share? It would be much appreciated.

P.S If any of you are in the Boston area, BDL is constantly looking for people to commit a few hours of their weekend to judge these kids. It really is rewarding and I would encourage anyone with the time to volunteer.

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Your Home Theater sucks.

Leo stands in awe, like I do at the movies.

The phrase home theater is a very sad one. 60 inch LCD 1080p televisions with massive Bose sound systems are all well and good, but they absolutely pale in comparison with the real thing. This is something I’ve always believed, but only recently have I begun to appreciate movie theaters as the absolute necessity in my life that they are.

Movies are meant to envelop people into a world that is not their own, often telling incredibly complex story in the span of two to three hours. The goal of so many motion pictures is evoke a genuine emotional response from the audience regarding people who until a few hours before were essentially complete strangers. A good film will allow a character to evolve on screen in front of you in such a way that makes you feel as if you understand that persons innermost motivations, which is a feat that many of us never accomplish even for our closest friends. Home theater setups provide an environment which simply doesn’t allow this kind of experience to happen in the same manner. First, there is something to be said to looking at a picture that often taxes your peripheral vision in order to appreciate it all. Instead of looking to the left and catching a glimpse of a coffee table, all you get in a theater is more movie or unobtrusive darkness. Even a 60 inch television will seldom will produce this effect unless you’re sitting 4 feet away. But more importantly, distractions like computers, cell phones, lights, and other such things constantly remind people that what they are watching really is just a movie, and these are simply characters and not people to invest in. A proper movie experience is different; it’s more visceral, more real. Recently, I saw Inception with fellow Stone Soup poster Josh Morrison at the Boston Common IMAX here in Boston. From the very first moment of that movie, the pure scope of the theater allowed me to experience that movie in a way that simply isn’t possible within your average residential setup. The bass of the IMAX speakers within the room roared through not only my ears, but literally shook the entire theater as it did so. When you can literally *feel* the soundtrack of the movie, that evokes a different response than were I simply to hear that same sound at home. It makes you feel like you’re there with the characters; it makes you want to know more about the world they live in. I knew when I left that theater, that no matter how many times I saw Inception over the course of my life, in many ways I was seeing it for the first and last time.

The real driving force for why I’m writing this however, is neither the sound, nor the picture… it’s the people. In the past 12 months I’ve discovered a local gem near my apartment known as the Coolidge Corner Theater. The Coolidge as its patrons affectionately call it is a small independent non-profit theater which shows the kind of independent fare that doesn’t normally make it to the AMCs of the world until months later, if at all. However, they also have a propensity as many independent theaters do for showing screenings of classic movies quite frequently. In the past few months, I’ve seen showings of both Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Big Lebowski on the big screen and let me tell you, this experience has been awesome. The idea of viewing these films in a converted opera house does pique my interest for reasons of pure nerdyness, but more importantly, these films get the community to come out en masse. These shows sell out days in advance, and the folks who come out are true enthusiasts. At The Big Lebowski, there were several excellent Walter Sobchak look-a-likes who were often reminding people that, “This is not Nam, there are rules.” In addition to that, the crowd didn’t stop participating when the film began to roll, there was raucous laughter for every funny quip that came out, and absolutely nothing was missed by anyone. During Raiders of the Lost Ark, people cheered wildly when Indiana Jones first looked up from beneath the brow of his fedora in the opening scene, and again when he shoots the giant sword wielding goon in the square.

The crowd goes wild.

When you know that everyone around you is enjoying the movie in the same way that you are, that feeling of elation from can only be described as contagious. Seeing a movie with four or five friends at home is also good, but it simply isn’t the same.  Admittedly, these moments certainly aren’t experienced during every movie you’d see in theaters, as most films aren’t of that quality. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that movies are a communal experience, and the collective gasp that occurs in theaters during tense scenes in great movies is a tough thing to replicate.

Anyway, go see a movie this weekend. I will.

Summer Vacation?

Much has been said about the increasing achievement gaps between United States students and international students, particularly in areas like mathematics. For the last several years, we have continued to lag behind our peers, and of course America in all its glory wonders why? Naturally fingers have pointed every which way, and have led to some fairly disastrous policy in my opinion (see: No Child Left Behind). However, the latest fall-guy might be one of my most beloved: Summer Vacation.

The problem however, is certainly a substantial one. The latest results have us lagging far behind countries which simply don’t have the same sort of resources to draw upon as we do. Common thought seems to dictate that with an adjustment of policy, combined with our economic resources, that there is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be #1. There is a litany of different policies that have been proposed along this train of thought. Conor Clarke of the Atlantic has written several times in support of a policy that would essentially abolish summer vacation in favor of partially compensating kids by having longer more frequent vacations throughout the year. The crux of the argument being that most of the traditional reasons for it (Agrarian calendar) are things of the past, and 3 months without learning contributes to a significant loss in aptitude. That problem is then exacerbated by living in a  low-income household where people don’t have access to enriching summer activities.

Admittedly, I’m sure that getting rid of what often consists of 3 months of with no structure will inevitably make kids stronger math students… that much is not in doubt for me. If it’s done solely through an expansion of the educational system, it’s also going to cause problems. Not only are education budgets already strained without having to do things like run the A/C all summer, hire more teachers, more janitors, etc. But many of these teachers use the summer to do things like keep up on state licensing requirements by taking classes, and become further certified to advance their careers. Forcing teachers to do these things by taking night classes rather than simply doing it during the summer will invariably make their life harder, which will probably reflect in their work at school. More alarmingly, it will also serve to deter people from entering the teaching profession at all. Many people are satisfied with the generally sub-par pay that teachers receive in part because they know that they will have summers off and some free time. If you tell someone that they’re going to have to work hours comparable to a first year junior associate at a major firm, and then come home with 35-40k to show for it…. They’re not going to be happy.

Furthermore, I believe that its possible people are simply looking in the wrong place for a solution to this problem.  The lackadaisical summer shouldn’t been as a failure of schooling necessarily. It is a failure of first parenting and secondly community resources. There are thousands of families with access to camps, and all sorts of summer enrichment activities for their kids, yet they choose to let them languish in front of a television for long periods of time. I know this, because I had access to many of these camps and summer learning opportunities, yet most of my time was probably spent watching Ren & Stimpy during my early summers. Understandably, many kids don’t have the financial resources  to go to camps, or fancy extracurricular programs. This is why more money should be invested in programs like Boys & Girls Clubs of America, or the YMCAs of the world. These places provide a vital place for kids to go, and interact with their peers.  These facilities not only often have learning on the agenda, but other things that are sorely lacking within the American lifestyle such as physical activity. After all, if we just keep kids in school longer, and are already cutting corners to get rid of expensive classes like P/E, isn’t that only going to exacerbate America’s obesity problem?

Of course, this isn’t even considering the value of unstructured summer vacation. A lot of those lackadaisical summers I spent meandering around my hometown with my friends were also my most enjoyable. The experiences I had, I wouldn’t trade for the world, and I think many people probably look back on the summers of their youth in a similar fashion. If the goal of school is to prepare kids to have a successful and happy life, should we be willing to make some sort of trade off for those unquantifiable memories that are achieved during those summers?

If any proposal along these lines were to pass, I personally think we should have more school days but shorter ones. While countries like Japan may spend far more days of the calendar year in school, they actually spend fewer total hours than we do in the classroom. I fear that if we both increase the # of days and hours per day spent in the classroom, kids will simply tune out school even more than they do now, and drop-out rates may even increase. If we make days in school a bit shorter, we might stop the summer learning backslide, as well as allow some time for kids to still indulge in the creative unstructured bursts that make summertime so great. Although, at the same time, that’s going to lead to the same questions we confront now, “What should the kids do for those hours that they are out of school while the parents are at work? Are they going to get into more trouble?” Well, not if we sensibly stop looking at school as the only solution. It can’t be a band-aid for all of our kids’ problems. That kind of improvement across the board is going to take more than just a different school policy, its going to take a substantial investment in the communities of America. People are going to have to stand up and take responsibility for their kids, rather than letting media babysit them, and they’re going to have to stop looking for the Department of Education to solve all their problems.