Sunday, May 27, 2007

Improving Public Schools

This was another essay required by my English Comp course. It was a problem solving essay--define a problem and offer (a) solution(s). I scored 100/100

Educational institutions aren't educating our children as well as they should. Many public high schools pass our children from grade to grade and finally graduating them without ever having delivered an education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 28% of entering students take remedial courses in math, reading, or writing before starting core curriculum course work. The number is far higher, at 42% for 2-year public schools, like junior and community colleges. (NCES)

Teachers of children are wonderful. They do a job with an enormous responsibility. I have had teachers that have changed my life by the education they gave me. From kindergarten through college, I can recall teachers that have made a positive impact on my life. On the other hand, I've also had teachers that did nothing—or worse, actually discouraged my educational advancement. After taking Algebra II—or rather sitting through a class by that name—in high school, I knew I had learned nothing that would prepare me for the next level of math, so I didn't progress. There are some teachers who merely show up to work to collect a paycheck and perform with barely enough competence to avoid getting fired—just as there are in any other line of work.

Many of us have stories about a particular teacher that, because of that teacher's passion for the subject, a spark was ignited within ourselves and we, too, became impassioned for that subject. Conversely, many of us have also experienced the opposite: that certain teacher that, instead of teaching, maybe hurled the subject at us with such force and difficulty that it knocked us on our backs, and we learned to despise the subject . What does it help if students sit through class with that “fun” history teacher, but are never taught history? How is anyone benefited when a lazy teacher gives out good grades to those students who bring donuts? Too much is at stake. We can't afford to keep bad teachers or those who only pretend to teach. But what can be done about it?

Teachers need to be graded. We need our teachers to have meaningful performance reviews, and if they earn too many F's, they need to be fired. Maybe this sounds harsh, but it's no more terrible than what the rest of us face. If you or I fail to accomplish the job for which we've been hired, we too may face termination. I've determined that teachers must be evaluated with a composite of several different sources: student scores, supervisor reviews, and student reviews. An average of student scores would be used to determine whether the teacher is effectively delivering the required curriculum. Supervisor reviews would act as a means of evaluating goals and achievements. Most importantly, but handled very carefully, would be student reviews. I envision student surveys being conducted at 4 different times: halfway through the class, at the end of the class, and then one year after the class, and four years after the class. This would provide a comprehensive view of how effective the teacher was in reaching the students, and what sort of lasting effect was left by the teacher. These, taken together, would be able to provide a clear picture of how well a teacher is doing his or her job.

Teachers also need to be rewarded according to their performance. If a teacher is good at motivating students to learn and skilled at helping them do so—as reflected in their performance reviews—then they need to be paid accordingly. Hopefully this may also be an incentive to keep the best teachers working in the classrooms for a very long time.

Starting salaries need to be raised in order to attract ambitious and talented people. Many bright, sharp and gifted people I know have considered the career path of a teacher, only to find that the pay is too low for their them. Yes, there are intrinsic rewards that come from being an educator, and knowing that your work is making a difference in peoples lives. But those rewards don't pay the bills. The American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and the US Department of Labor all report that the national average for teacher salary is below $50,000 (AFT, NEA, US Labor Dept), with an average starting salary of less than $32,000 (US Labor Dept)—based on the typical 40-hour work week, that's roughly $15/hour. If starting salary was raised to a level commensurate with the difficulty of the job, there would be more competition for teaching jobs, allowing schools to pick only the best and brightest.

Lastly, if a student isn't performing well under the guidance of a particular teacher, he or she needs be given the opportunity to have a different teacher. Sometimes, no matter how good the teacher is, it's not the right teacher for that student. In these cases, students need to be offered the same course from a different teacher, or even from a different school.

If these things can be done, our public high schools will see immediate and long lasting improvements. Quality of education will rise, enriching the lives of students and their families.

Works Cited

Wirt, J., Choy, S., Rooney, P., Provasnik, S., Sen, A., and Tobin, R. (2004). The Condition of Education 2004 (NCES 2004-077). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

George Jackson. “AFT Salary Survey: Teachers Need 30 Percent Raise Teacher Pay Insufficient To Meet Rising Debt, Housing Costs in Many Areas” March 2007. American Federation of Teachers

“neatoday” “Teacher Salaries” May 2007

Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Teachers—Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle, and Secondary” section “Earnings” May 2007 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Everyday Laptop

This was another essay required by my English Composition course. This was an 'evaluation' essay in with I had to choose a subject and evaluate it. I picked something easy...

When people find out that I know a thing or two about computers, the most common question I get is "what's a good computer to buy?" Recognizing that most people who ask this question aren't what would be described as "power users", I found a computer that I can recommend to almost everyone who asks. The Compaq Presario V6000 notebook is an inexpensive and all-around well functioning laptop that will meet the computing needs of most students and consumers. It's no high-performance gaming machine, nor is it a super slim, ultra portable traveler's dream, but it certainly has the important components in the right places for the right price. In fact, I liked it so much, I bought one.

The specific model I found, the Presario V6110US, has adequate computing power with a modest processor, sufficient memory, and a spacious hard drive. To start off, it is built with a mid-grade processor, an AMD 1.6 GHz Dual-Core. If that means nothing to you, let me briefly explain. The processor determines “how fast” the computer is, and is measured in Hertz (usually gigahertz or GHz). The relatively new multi-core processors work as if there are multiple separate CPU's working together—like a team of horses pulling a load instead of a single horse—and effectively multiplies the speed. So, this 1.6 GHz Dual-Core processor (1.6 x 2) works like a 3.2 GHz processor. The cutting edge processors available in laptops today (May 2007) are 2.3 GHz dual-core chips, which is equivalent to 4.6 GHz, and the low end laptops run at 1.6 GHz. So, the effective 3.2 GHz offered by this laptop is neither weakly nor musclebound, but modest and capable.

The V6110US is configured with 512 MB (Megabytes)--or half of a Gigabyte--of memory, or RAM. This is minimal, yet sufficient for all but the most demanding tasks. To understand memory, think of it as the workspace where all tasks are performed. With more memory, there's more room to open up heftier programs and bigger projects. The majority of what I, and most other users, do on a computer can be easily managed within half a "gig" of memory. Some people have a need for more memory because of certain school assignments which require more memory to run the way they're supposed to, such as computer aided drafting, or graphic design. Others have a preference for graphically intensive games, which also perform better with a greater quantity of memory. If you require more memory to handle these weightier applications, the laptop can be upgraded up to 2 GB--something I am considering, but haven't yet had the need.

Packed inside is also a 100 GB hard drive, which provides more than enough storage capacity for most people's needs. Unless you are an MP3 junkie or video pack rat, this hard drive will likely never be filled up.

This Compaq has plenty of computing power for web surfing, emailing, instant messaging, word processing, photo editing, movie watching, and even some modest video editing and gaming.

Beyond the raw numbers of processor speed, memory quantity, and hard drive capacity, this notebook also integrates many other features that take it from merely functional to versatile and . The display is a strikingly crisp and clear, 15.4 inch widescreen. This makes the laptop great for watching movies and DVDs on the go. The built-in combo DVD/CD drive reads and writes DVDs and CDs. This enables the user to create music CDs, make backup copies of DVDs, and back up irreplaceable homework assignments and other data. Integrated Wi-Fi (802.11g standard) provides wireless Internet connection at Wi-Fi hotspots or a home wireless router. Additionally, a built in Ethernet network jack is present for LAN connections, and there's a modem for dial-up Internet access. If you need connection to devices like a digital camera, MP3 player, printer, or external hard drive, this notebook includes two USB ports for expandability. These extra features, especially the widescreen display, DVD burner, and Wi-Fi connection, combine to add real usability to this computer.

Of course the primary reason to choose a laptop over a desktop computer is portability. This 6.6 pound computer—lighter than some textbooks—is light enough to carry in a briefcase, in a bag over the shoulder, or in a backpack. Again, it's not ultra-light, but it is portable.

My only real complaint is from the poor battery life. From day one, I haven't been able to get more than an hour of usage from it. This leads me to believe that mine may be defective, but I haven't yet called support about it. One other small complaint, also with regards to portability, is that because of the width of the screen, it turns out to be a bit wider than most laptops--and therefore, doesn't fit in the padded laptop pocket in my laptop bag. I guess this is the trade-off for the widescreen. While both of these drawbacks impact portability, it hasn't stopped me from taking it to work and back, and using it on my daily train commute.

I had been pricing laptops for several months before purchasing this one, and most of the ones I considered were selling between $750 and $1200. I picked this up on a sale at Fry's electronics in Dallas, Texas, in November 2006 for $699--after which there was a $30 mail-in rebate that almost covered sales tax. For all the features and power I was looking for, and the invaluable freedom provided by a portable computer, this laptop was--and is--a great value at less than $750.

In short, if you are looking for a laptop that can work where you go, provide the power you need for probably all of your computing needs, and has some of the nice extras, the Compaq Presario V6110US, and likely any of the Presario V6000 series, will be a good pick.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Response to "Beauty and Violence"

Again, can't find a link to this essay, but here's my response to it.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You; Fool me Twice...

In "Beauty and Violence", Adam Forest responds to an ad from TIGI, makers of hair and makeup products. In his essay, he describes some truly awful imagery of violence against women. After reading his response, I pointed my web browser to the company's website, and after a few clicks I found a prominent warning label resembling something that would come from the Surgeon General. It stated, in big bold letters, "WARNING: You Must Have a Sense of Humour to Use Our Products" ( That message explained a lot that Mr. Forest must have missed. If this is what passes for humor at this British cosmetic company, it is sick humor, indeed. But it certainly changes the lenses through which I see this company and their ad, as well as Forest's review of it.

The name of the product line itself, "Bed Head", is the exact malady that we all try to cure with haircare products every morning. TIGI named these products with extreme irony. Likewise, Forest completely misses the point of the ad when he describes it as "the beautification of violence." What could be uglier than a black eye and a fat lip? They could have just called their new line, "Ugly", but that would have been far too obvious. Instead they chose something to embody the essence of ugliness, and again applied the irony. Unfortunately, their ad was in poor taste, as well as badly misunderstood.

While I applaud Forest's outrage at the displayed violence against women, and I agree that it is a serious problem, his efforts ought to be directed at real violence, not poor attempts at humor.

Response to "Teach Diversity--with a Smile"

You will need to read Barbara Ehrenreich, "Teach Diversity - With a Smile". I can't find a link to it, but if you do, please post it in the comments. When I get to it, I'll post it here.

In "Teach Diversity--with a Smile", Barbara Ehrenreich's main point seems to be that multiculturalism and political correctness are being marketed poorly, but despite that, they are improvements over the preexisting philosophy of Western monoculturalism. Or, in other words, she seems to say "multiculturalism isn't as bad as what I had when I was growing up." This is no ringing endorsement by any means, but to make it worse, she makes weak arguments to support her thesis.

Ehrenreich opens by indicating that conservative critics are outrageously overreacting. She sites no sources, but makes vague references to "the media," and "a flock of tenured conservative scholars." It appears as though she's creating 'straw men' critics that don't really exist so that she can put words into their mouths, and then discredit them for having said such things. By this tactic, she writes-off the argument that freedom of speech is under fire by the promoters of "verbal purification."

Replacing one well-intentioned, yet inadequate system for another one doesn't necessarily make the replacement better than the old one. This, however, is exactly the argument that Ehrenreich uses to try to persuade the reader that, multiculturalism, by virtue of by throwing out monoculturalism, must be better. Ehrenreich flashes back to her experiences growing up under the "opression" and "deprivation" of monoculturalism, to illustrate that that it was indeed inadequate. While this may be true--the age she describes was before my time--she does nothing to explain how multiculturalism actually fixes any of the problems she describes.

In the same argument, as if deliberately trying to weaken her point, she claims to be a "victim" of of white educated-class privileges. This simply doesn't carry any weight when compared to real discrimination based on physical disablity, race, religion, or gender.

She DOES, however, recognize that the advocates of political correctness and multiculturalism seem more interested in "fashionable phrases" than taking action. Perhaps she, herself, is actively involved in helping people in disadvantaged statuses, but if such is the case she doesn't indicate it. All she seems to prove is that she is capable of spewing flowery support of multiculturalism.

Finally, after failing to come up with anything actually positive or beneficial that has come from multiculturalism or P.C.-ness, the best Ehrenreich can offer is that both sides of this heavily charged issue of clashing global cultures, is to "lighten up" because it's "livelier and ultimately more fun." These are words that are used to convince friends and roommates to go to a late night party when there's schoolwork to be done. This cannot be held up as a serious argument. To paraphrase Barbara Ehrenreich:, monoculturalism TOTALLY sucked when I was growing up, but multiculturalism is, like, WAY better, because it's more funner.

I believe Ms. Ehrenreich will indeed continue to "teach diversity--with a smile" of blissful ignorance. As much as she bought into the preching of monoculturalism without critical thought while growing up, she seems to have also swallowed the new doctrine of multiculturalism with equal consideration.

-Wes Larson

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Million Goodbyes

It's dark, but my eyes are well adjusted to it. I've been up, getting showered and dressed for thirty-five minutes, and it's now time to leave. I look down to see my wife lying asleep on her side of the bed, her brown hair covering her face. I push it back, exposing her soft, rosy cheek, and give it a gentle kiss. "Goodbye" I whisper. She doesn't respond, but exhales softly. A few moments later I'm locking the front door behind me and then driving to work.

As I drive, I think back to all of the goodbyes, I've said to my wife. None of them have ever been permanent--I've never not seen her again. Every time we part, there's a goodbye. Sometime later--usually hours, but sometimes weeks, and occasionally months, but always-- we're together again. I begin to wonder, just how many times we've said goodbye to each other. Then I think back to the first big goodbye.

It was a sunny, warm day--not yet into the full blasting heat of Texas summer, but still very warm. I stood next to my little red car, which was was parked in the driveway of Misty's tiny house. There was barely room for a driver and a passenger--every cubic inch of that Ford Focus hatchback was crammed with nearly all my earthly possessions. We didn't know when we'd see each other next, but it had to be soon. We had only been engaged for three months when I was offered a job fifteen hundred miles away in California--a job that was just too good to turn down. So, there I was, leaving my beloved fiancée and her two little girls behind. Suddenly it was time to say goodbye. We stood there for a moment, looking into each other's eyes, holding each other's hands. We spoke, but I don't remember the words. We kissed. And we kissed again. It was time to leave. I hugged and kissed each of the little girls on the cheeks and climbed into my car. I put my arm out the window to squeeze Misty's hand again. She leaned in for one last kiss. Again, we said our goodbyes, and I promised to call as soon as I got to my destination. I started the engine and drove off, watching in my rear view mirrors to see her waving, and then returning indoors.

We had countless telephone conversations, with just as many goodbyes over the following ten weeks, but the next time we parted was not long after the first.

I was driving on a cool, gray morning. Misty sat in the passenger seat. I was filled with irrepressible happiness, and yet gloom hung just ahead. I gave her hand a squeeze. We had just eloped to Las Vegas after being apart for two and a half months, and had just ended an amazing and wonderful--and far too short--one-night honeymoon. Now she was flying back to her job and her children in Texas, and I was driving back to my job in California. I made the turns into the unfamiliar Las Vegas airport and eventually found a parking spot. I unloaded Misty's luggage from the back of the car and carried it to the terminal.

I don't remember the conversation, but I know we chatted as we walked. After checking in, we didn't have to wait long for her boarding call. I wished the wait was longer. I wanted the minutes to stretch on so I could just stay in the presence of my new bride. I didn't want her to go. Again, suddenly it was time for goodbyes. Again, we didn't know when we'd see each other next. We embraced. We kissed as passionately as we could in a public place. I then watched as she walked through the gate, and out of site.

As I drive in the early morning twilight, I think to myself, that was almost seven years ago. There were another two years of daily goodbyes, before our next long separation.

All three kids were asleep in the back of the van. It wasn't terribly late, but after a day at Disneyland, we were all tired. My flight was in one and a half hours, which should have given us just enough time to make it to the Los Angeles airport. I was about to take a two month business trip to India to train some technical support agents. "Sure, it would be tough to be away from each other," we told each other, "but we had been apart for this long before and it only strengthened our relationship."

POP! thup-thup-thup-thup-thup.

"Oh no!" Misty exclaimed. "We have a flat!"

She pulled the van to the side of the freeway, making sure to stop under a streetlight. Changing a tire is usually no problem for me, but this was going to be a challenge. I hadn't changed a tire on this vehicle before, and so had to discover the secret hiding places where the jack and lug wrench were stashed. My luggage was covering the the spare tire and had to be completely unloaded to gain access to it. And, it was dark. As fast as I could possibly work, I jacked up the van and removed the deflated full-sized tire and replaced it with a fully functional spare "donut". Finally, after roughly forty-five minutes, we were driving again. But now we were in mad rush to get me to the airport on time. Misty drove as fast as the little spare could take us without blowing out.

Thirteen minutes before my flight, we arrived at the airport. She pulled up to the curb, and Misty and I jumped out and unloaded my suitcases. There was hardly a second to spare for a quick peck of a kiss. "I-love-you-goodbye!" I hollered behind me, as I ran with my bags into the airport. It was a terrible goodbye. I would be totally out of contact for the next twenty-two hours as I flew halfway around the world. I wouldn't even know whether my wife and children made it home alright, let alone be able to do anything to help. But at least I made the flight.

My cellphone rings, bringing me out of my memories on my morning commute. "Hi, babe," I answer, seeing that it's Misty. "You're up early."

"I don't remember you giving me a kiss and telling me goodbye this morning," she pouts over the phone.

"Of course I did," I assure her. "You were sound asleep. You didn't even move."

"Oh." She sounds disappointed that she missed it. "Well, I just wanted to say I love you."

"I love you, too," I respond.

"Okay." She yawns. "I'll talk to you later."


"Promise," she responds. "Bye," she says sleepily.

"Goodbye," and the call is disconnected.

One more goodbye. May there be a million more. And even then, someday, when one of us departs this world, it will only be a matter of time--maybe months, maybe years--before we are joined together in the eternities, forever connected, with no more goodbyes.

This essay was written as part of an English Composition course. It was a timed essay, to be completed in 4 hours (or less; it took me roughly 3 1/2 hours). I scored 92/100.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Disconnected Sardines

I notice the behavior of complete strangers packed together in public places. The funny thing is that, with people encroaching on each others' personal space, there's so little interaction—so little human contact. I see this often on the morning commuter train.

The seats are uncomfortable and cramped. They are made of stainless steel and a thin pad of upholstery—more to give the appearance of two separate seats, than to provide comfort. My knees ache, pressed against the hard metal of the seat in front of me, and I try to keep my elbows tucked in front of me, since I'm jammed up against the wall to my left and someone else in the seat to my right. The woman seated next to me seems to be tired--after all, it is 6:17 AM. She is of African decent, and looks to be mid-40's, but I'm never good at judging ages. I don't stare at her, but notice that she's professionally dressed in a light tan overcoat and her hair is nicely styled in wide curls that cascade just below her shoulders. Her large black purse rests in her lap, the strap still over her shoulder.

The swaying of the train jostles us side to side and we can't help but bump elbows. Her voice cracks as if she hasn't spoken since waking. "Pardon me" she says politely, in a husky, contralto voice, though there is no fault to be pardoned.

The woman sitting in front of me has blond hair--it's not natural; I can see the dark regrowth beneath the yellow-blond twists of hair--done up in that modern fashion, randomly sticking out in different directions. From the back it's hard to assess her age, but I would guess she's younger than the woman sitting next to me. She's reading through a copy of Quick, a free newspaper. I can only make out a headline about American Idol. I try to read over her shoulder but the train is swaying too much at the moment, making it difficult. She turns the page, but the flimsy paper doesn't cooperate and folds and wrinkles in the wrong places, resulting in a battle of wills between the woman and the pages. After much crinkling and rustling, the fight is over, the page successfully turned. The people around her are unphased by the struggle.

I perceive the faint scent of shampoo or soap from the woman next to me. I try not to smell. Being this close to so many people with so many different hygiene habits (or lack thereof), I'm afraid of what might fill my nostrils. Thankfully it's pleasant this time, and I can, literally, breathe easier. I'd be more worried if I were sitting next to that guy sitting two rows up across the aisle. He's wearing workman's blue jeans--the kind that, even when they're clean they're stained with the residue of work--and a green T-shirt with a slightly faded company logo printed across the back. His dark, dark brown hair has grown long, like he hasn't had a haircut for a few too many weeks. Though I can't see his face, his body shows he's a relatively young, strong man—probably in his late 20's or early 30's. To be fair, he looks showered and shaven and ready for work, but later today, after a long day's labor in the Texas heat, whoever sits next to him will probably have their eyes watering from the stink of sweat.

The train slows. People shuffle positions, anticipating their stop at the nearing station. There is very little speaking; a few excuse me's. The doors at the front and the back of the train car give an angry hiss as they open. A few get off and more get on, filling up more of the scarcely available seats. Some decide taking a seat isn't worth the trouble and remain standing. The voice of the conductor squawks over the intercom, supposedly informing the passengers about the next stop and final destination, but it comes across as complete gibberish--more closely resembling the wa-waa-wa-waa speech of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

"Ding-Ding" and the train accelerates. The humming engines increase in pitch and the rushing sound of the wheels on the rails gets just loud enough to make conversation difficult. “Hrrrnnn, hrrrnnnn,” the train whines its warning to cars stopped at railroad crossings.

“Hiya,” says a woman's voice somewhere behind me. I don't turn around to see who's there; I know she's not speaking to me. “Ah know—Ah paid that yesterday,” she drawls impatiently into her mobile phone. She lowers her voice and I can't make out the rest of the conversation, which ends shortly.

I watch the man standing at the front of the train. He's older, probably in his 50's, with gray, thinning hair and a neatly trimmed gray mustache. His black (or is that dark brown? I can't tell in the dim florescent light) briefcase is tucked between his feet. He holds on to a handrail to steady himself against the movement of the train. He is slim, dressed in light blue polo shirt tucked into tan khakis—the business-casual “uniform”. He, like me, is looking around at the people on the train. Staring for a moment, then glancing down at the floor, then looking around again. Our eyes meet, and a hint of a smile crosses his face before he shifts his eyes away to look at nobody. There was almost a connection, broken off before before it could become human interaction.

We all sit (or stand) together in each others' silence. A few resting their eyes, some reading, some just bored, waiting for their destination. All together, each in solitude. We are disconnected sardines, tightly packed into a steel can, but politely and deliberately ignoring each other.

This essay was written as part of a college English Composition course. This is an essay submitted to show "observation". I scored 98/100.