The Dummy

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After Tuesday, Gentle Reader, your attempted expiry in my presence may be less unwise. I’m going for my third CPR training.

The first, about a decade ago, I made a hash of. I couldn’t keep anything straight. The instructor was very nice about it, and easily forgiven if he went home thinking the problem with education in America was idiots like me.

The second time, a few years later, was at the NICU. It was an exit interview of sorts with a nurse who ran through various scenarios with a little fake baby. I don’t remember much; it mostly scared the daylights out of me.

Around the time of my first CPR training, I had a week of jury duty. After the jurors had been selected, a court officer gave us a talk about what to do the next day. This is what happened:

Continue reading “The Dummy”




Last year, each Friday, I taught a double block of Science class. Early on it became apparent that if our sanities were to be maintained, the students and I would have to find something active and engaging to do.

I put a request on DonorsChoose for some engineering kits. And on Giving Tuesday, a local comic book store stepped up and paid for the whole thing, over five hundred dollars’ worth. For the rest of the year, double block was a joy. The kids were totally into it, as was I.

Thank you, Hub Comics, for making our lives a lot better.

This Friday (and thereafter), Gentle Reader, shop there!


Thinking Fast and Slow


In Science I teach that Earth has been around for a long time, and in Ancient Civilizations I teach that humanity has been around for a long time.

Monday I’m taking the latter class out to the football field to recreate this video, that they might see which has existed longer:



Well, it really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?


One of humanity’s better endeavors has been putting up those little free library boxes. There’s one at the playground, and I never cease to marvel at the volumes that find their way in. Last week I picked up The Timetables of History.

The early 500s music scene wasn’t much, apparently:


But in the 540s, daily life went downhill fast:


Ill Communication


I get ill all the time, but no one wants to hear about that.

– Paul Theroux


I was in Dick’s Sporting Goods recently and found myself laughing in the aisle. Twin 2, who has begun to suspect her father is unusual, asked what was so funny.

“They’re playing a silly song,” I told her.

For on the PA system was Run-DMC’s “You Be Illin’,” which contains one of balladry’s more lamentable parables:

Dinner, you ate it, there is none left
It was salty – with butter – and it was def.
You proceeded to eat it ’cause you was in the mood
But homes you did not read: it was a can of dog food!

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This in turn was the Alpo madeleine of a memory from college. I had gone to a department office to drop off a paper. How I laughed at the sign on the door:

Closed Due to Illness




Now then. Your help, if I may: would you please let me know what’s your favorite idiom?

One of my resolutions is to teach my students an idiom a week.

My favorite is “barking up the wrong tree.” That combination of ardor and error – I do believe it captures something essential about la condition humaine. (Don’t worry, I just tell the kids it means you’re mistaken.)

NB a previous colleague left a book filled with pages of idioms, more than I can teach, so I don’t need suggestions – rather, I want your favorite one.


PS it does not go without saying – there are scoundrels among you – that I request your favorite idiom appropriate for children.


School Daze


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That penultimate sentence is my new favorite.

I had just spent five years in graduate school, a statement that may mean nothing to people who never served such a stretch; it is the explanation, nonetheless. I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has. Millions of Americans now go to graduate schools, but just say the phrase—”graduate school”—and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur. Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it. I thought about it myself. No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know. Everyone used to sniff the air. How morbid! How poisonous! Nothing else like it in the world! But the subject always defeated them. It defied literary exploitation. Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run, with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic over boil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.

-Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism



Académie Française


Effective teachers motivate their students not only to learn, but to want to learn.

A best practice comes from language instruction in the French Foreign Legion. Here’s how one platoon commander encourages his recruits:

“You will learn French fast because I am not your mother.”

And then how do you create a culture of achievement?

In one episode of The Bureau, a new undercover agent asks her handler what to do if she is unable to complete an assignment. I was quite taken with the response, apparently customary in the DGSE:

“If you can’t, go home and forget the whole thing.”


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The National Anthem


1. Who’s on First?

Last week it was fractions, and I spent some time trying to explain how “equivalent” differs in meaning from “equal.”

We used currencies and first names as examples. Then we got into national anthems.

I’ll spare you the transcript, but there were several iterations of:

Mr. Sipe: Yes, but what’s the title?
Brazilian students: [with increasing impatience] Hino Nacional Brasileiro!

Finally I understood the Brazilian national anthem was actually called “Brazilian National Anthem.”

I’d hitherto assumed all national anthems had their own titles. God Save the Queen. La Marseillaise. O Canada. But the kids from Colombia and El Salvador and Guatemala affirmed that their anthems were titled like Brazil’s.

If you look at this list, you’ll see it’s a common phenomenon, sometimes to a fairly specific degree, e.g. The State Anthem of the Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan.


2. Of Thee I Sing

Now, if I’m going to make fun of other countries’ anthems, I must acknowledge that ours, about a war in which we botched the invasion of Canada and the British captured our capital, is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Still, though:

  • Yumi, Yumi, Yumi (Vanuatu’s got love in its tummy)
  • One Single Night (Disco Stu’s anthem? Nope, Burkina Faso’s)
  • There Is a Lovely Country (and Denmark wants you to guess)
  • The Thunder Dragon Kingdom (don’t mess with Bhutan)
  • William (Het Was Echt Niets)


3. Love and Crockets
  • It was honestly very cool when I said, semi-jokingly, “OK, who wants to sing theirs?” and bang, all of a sudden half my first period class were on their feet, belting out Hino Nacional Brasileiro. We were treated to La Dessalinienne, too. (That was it, though. My theory is there had to be a critical mass of at least four students from a country to agree to sing. I mean, if I was the only American and some fool math teacher invited me to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would not proudly so hail.)
  • Do check out the lyrics to Brazil’s: “Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray… Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America…”
  • I think “valence” is a lovely word, and I think English would be beautified if we all said “equivalence” stressing the third syllable. (Also, I wish everyone would emphasize both the prefix and root in “extraordinary” like Paul Holdengraber does.)


New York City Cops



I lived in New York City for six years, three of them in Manhattan, not too far from the Police Academy. You’d see cadets wait at nearby intersections for the walk signal. Apparently they have to do that. I remember thinking if anything in that town could be considered authentically bizarre behavior, it’d be waiting dutifully to cross the street.



I also remember, with great fondness, 3X80 and 3X81. These were the medallion numbers* of the two undercover taxis often parked outside the academy. Every time I’d see a taxi – which, in Manhattan, is like saying every time I’d see a hat – I’d look to see if it was either of them. But it never was.

Until the very night before I moved out!

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I’m reading the second volume of The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, a graphic novel trilogy by Riad Sattouf. The first one, which is excellent, is out in English; I’m muddling through the second, which is excellent, under the power of my four-cylinder French.


These frames are uncanny in their depiction of a typical day in my classroom.





All Together Now

1. Irony 101

(Author’s note: this is the earnest, teacher-y part of the post.)

Irony is one of the literary devices I teach my 6th graders, and I keep it to pretty obvious examples: a “no smoking” sign in a cigarette factory, getting run over by an ambulance, etc.

Last year I added to our repertoire this British ad, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce:

I showed students the clip with no introduction, then read passages from Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting, then we watched the clip once more.

Next week we’ll do it again. We’ll also listen to this episode of BBC’s Witness, which aired last Christmas Eve.


2: Nobody Beats the Wiz! (Except the Pogues and the Waitresses and some others as well)

Having spent quite possibly years of my life listening to the radio, I was surprised to hear of a popular Christmas song I’d never heard, or even heard of: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard.  Nick Lowe mentioned it in an interview, saying it’s on heavy rotation over there.

My Christmas #1 alternates, depending on mood, between “Fairytale of New York” and “Christmas Wrapping,” but I could easily make room in the top ten for this one. And the video is certainly a, uh, treat for the eyes:


PS speaking of Yuletide eyestrain, in the course of writing this post I had occasion to view the video for “All Together Now,” a song I remember dimly from high school, also about the Christmas Truce. (The song, I mean. High school was about unremitting trench warfare.) The video is slightly horrifying, and not in the way you’d perhaps expect, given the subject:


The Minister of Education


I came across this AP story a few years back. I’d used it for a vocab-in-context quiz, then forgot about it until I found the clipping in a file the other day.

This time reading it, I decided it’s a perfect* four-sentence short story:

A man posing as a government official took over a rural high school, where he beat students with a cane and leather belts and arbitrarily changed school hours, the police said Friday. The head teacher and others at Golden Grove High School in eastern Guyana initially accepted the man’s claim that he had been sent by the Ministry of Education to run the school. But they became suspicious when he began using different names and they noticed his poor grammar and spelling, police Commander Gavin Primo said. After two weeks, they called the ministry, and the man, who was not identified, was arrested.

Also, if I ever write under a pen name, it may well be Gavin Primo.


*NB perfect in a literary sense;  I wish to emphasize it is imperfectly consonant with my pedagogical philosophy.


Resourceful Humans


Quite exciting, this computer magic: I just learned the word “educationalist” exists.

I thought “educator” was bad enough, as it combines inflationary titling (“team associate” etc) with a macabre,* Khmer Rouge-esque flair. Next they’ll be calling us “instructional delivery curators.”

It reminds me of a conversation with my dad, who worked for the VA. “Personnel!” he’d say when he picked up the phone, for that’s what his department was called back then. When I was just out of college and looking for a job, I made the error of mentioning that I was going to call a human resources department.

“What are you going to tell them?” he asked.  “That you have 180 lbs of human resources to offer?”

It’s been difficult for me to use that term without wincing since.

And, I just checked… but I won’t have the heart to break it to the old man: now the VA calls it the “Office of Human Resources Management.”


*In the original sense of the word as well as Anthony Blanche’s sense.


Tell Me What It Takes To Let You Know


“One brand of knowing (scientia) earns a ratty office and a shared secretary at the Heritage Foundation. The other (awareness) brings power, money, fame.”


You know how sometimes an adjective doesn’t so much clarify as call into question what’s going on otherwise? E.g. “real beef” or “sweet lullaby”?

The field of education has a lot of such worrying combos, like “balanced literacy,” “authentic understanding,” “student-centered learning,” etc. (Inducing winces for me lately are “action plan” and “critical thinking.”)

An excellent post by Michael Fordham, “Is ‘understanding’ a thing?”*, led me to recall Richard Ben Cramer’s masterpiece about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes. In the chapter titled “To Know,” he explains how that “bland flapjack of a verb” has multiple meanings:

  • “the sense of acquaintance, of connaissance, but this is only the most basic way To Know.”
  • “knowing in the sense of knowledge, scientia, as in facts or familiarity.”
  • “Then there is the matter of being known, which can be more important than knowing.”
  • “Then there is another shade of the verb. To Know, in the sense of awareness. It is about what’s going on right now, and as such, it is Washington’s highest branch of knowledge.”
  • “a kind of knowing without being known to know, for which there is no word at all.”

If you haven’t read What It Takes, don’t be put off by its doorstoppishness. I read it when my twins were in their infancies, and it made the nights of diaper relays pass more happily. There is much to recommend it, not least the decency of the portraiture of the candidates. By the end I kind of liked them all, which is not how I started the book. It’s worth reading alone to know what Bob Dole went through.

And, waddaya know: Joltin’ Joe might run again.


*Fordham’s conclusion: “We have been conditioned in the field of education to be afraid of the word ‘knowledge’ and, perhaps because of this, to dress it up as something else. It’s about time that we stripped away these confusions and got back to the thing at the heart of teaching: knowledge.” Amen.


It’s Time Is Now.


I was putting up a set of posters on common misuses (to vs too, etc), and when I came to the it’s vs its one, I hesitated.

Between you and me – not in front of the children – can we just abolish “its”? My objections are twofold:

  1. I don’t see how “it’s” shouldn’t always be valid
  2. “Its” just looks stupid

Also, there’s my reflexive examination of either for misuse (oh, the undeserving brainpower), my unseemly glee when I spot an error (often accompanied by ungracious inklings of superiority), and the annihilating shame when the error is mine (you have no idea).

Can we just accept the possessive apostrophe in all it’s situations? Its’s just not for me.


PS Yes, I put the poster up. Yes, I’ll teach… it.


The International Language of Screaming


This occurred several months ago, but I am now ready to talk about it.

It was after lunch, and judging by the general lethargy, I must have been more soporific than usual. So I gave to a (normally exuberant) young man, seated in the back of the class, this note:




Writing that now, I can see that its perhaps insufficient punctuation introduces some ambiguity. And then there’s always my scribbly all-caps penmanship, too. Anyway, thirty seconds passed. Grinning, he looked to me for confirmation; I smiled back and held my thumb aloft.


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What happened next was a creaking, wordless wail. It sounded like a witch slowly opening a coffin. I mean, I had some indication of what to expect, and was still unsettled. Poe himself would have wept for mother.

It was obvious that the class had been frightened because not one of them stirred. (Speaking from broad experience, if a student causes a disturbance, it is rarely met without reaction.)

The shock wore off, and students turned round to see their (now) exuberant classmate and me laughing, high fiving, etc. This produced insistent objection, e.g. “No. No. Mr. Sipe, that was not funny.

If this is where you’re asking what sort of demented person casually invents such distress, I assure you that I am following best practices. As it says in Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Words and What It Means for the Classroom:

We all inevitably lose the attention of our students… They will mentally check out. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to get them back. Change grabs attention, as you no doubt know.


And if you don’t know, now you know, Gentle Reader.