Category Archives: Teaching


The world lost a good man this week.

I met Darian several years ago, when he was a round-faced sophomore serving as a quiet beacon of sanity in a class full of outrageous cutups. He was a sweet kid, unfailingly polite, and so quiet and unassuming that when I went through my archive of classroom photos in search of a photo of him doing something ridiculous to post on Facebook, I came up empty, because Darian wasn’t the kind of kid who craved attention. The only photos I have of him show a young man with a sort of bemused smile on his face, enjoying the antics of some of his more gonzo classmates during a group project at the conclusion of a unit on Hamlet.

Somehow those images, shot by one of his fourth-hour classmates, capture the essence of Darian as I knew him better than anything I could write about him. He was one of those kids every teacher looks forward to working with because he was so good-natured and reliable.

Sometime during Darian’s junior or senior year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He battled it — seemingly successfully for a while — graduated in spite of the distractions it dealt him, and last year, married another of my former students, a funny, confident young woman every bit as sweet and bright as he was. They seemed a perfect match, and smiling at their wedding pictures on Facebook, I fervently hoped they’d get their happily ever after.

Cancer doesn’t care what anybody hopes, and this week, it assigned Chelsey a title nobody her age should have to carry: widow.

The word sounds wrong when I think of her laughing in my classroom or beaming, radiant and beautiful, in her wedding pictures. It feels wrong. It weighs too much. It tastes strange in my mouth when I try to say it, remembering Darian grinning at whatever outrageous thing the class cutups were pulling this time.

Chelsey is a strong, compassionate woman. She’ll need that strength, and I pray that compassion will be returned to her — amplified exponentially — in the coming weeks and months and years. I suspect it will. I know Webster, and I know southwest Tulsa, and if there’s one thing kids who grew up together on the west side of the Arkansas River know how to do, it’s love and support each other through rough times. They’ve had to do it before — far too often — and I wish with all my heart I could stand between them and the world and absorb the blows so they’d never have to do it again.

If you can spare a prayer, a thought, or a good vibe for my kids — and especially Chelsey — I’d appreciate it.


A tale of corporate incompetence

I completed one of my New Year’s resolutions this week.

After six months of fighting with 3M Cogent — the breathtakingly incompetent vendor to which the state of New Mexico has outsourced all its background checks for professional licensure — I received my New Mexico teaching certificate in the mail Tuesday morning.

The end result delighted me, as New Mexico accepted my Oklahoma math certification, thus granting me dual endorsements in math and English at both the middle- and high-school levels. (Because of differences in certification requirements from state to state, I wasn’t sure I’d get a New Mexico math endorsement without taking their test.)

My joy at this outcome in no way excuses Cogent’s ineptitude, which turned what should have been a simple process into a six-month ordeal requiring at least 15 phone calls to nine people in three different offices.

How incompetent is Cogent? Read on.

February: I begin compiling my application packet.

Early March: I submit my packet, including the two fingerprint cards required for my mandatory background check.

Early April: Cogent sends me a letter saying the FBI rejected my first card because the prints weren’t clear. “If you originally mailed hardcopy fingerprint cards, the second card will be automatically scanned, and no further action is required,” the letter states.

Early May: I receive a letter from the New Mexico Public Education Department, saying I need to go to a Cogent office in New Mexico and be re-fingerprinted. (Cogent has an office a mile from my house, but it only fingerprints applicants for Missouri certificates, despite the fact Cogent is a national company using an electronic system to request background checks from a federal agency.)


I call NM PED to explain I live 1,000 miles from the nearest approved Cogent office. PED tells me to call Cogent.

I call Cogent, tell their rep I’ll be in Tucumcari in early June, and ask whether I should just go to their Tucumcari office to be reprinted while I’m in town. The rep says I should NOT do that, as it will cost extra and create unnecessary confusion. Instead, she says, I should call the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to request a “name-search background check” using my Social Security number.

Phone tag ensues.

Mid-May: I finally reach a NM DPS officer, who says she has no idea why Cogent keeps sending people to her, as ALL background-check requests have to come from them. She says if my first card is rejected, the second will be scanned automatically, and if the second is rejected, a name search will be initiated automatically, so I should just wait.

I wait.

I go to Tucumcari.

I come home.

I wait.

School starts.

Still I wait.

Aug. 19: I call Cogent. A Cogent rep says my first fingerprint card was scanned and rejected, whereupon the process stopped because I didn’t call and ask them to scan the second card (which their letter said would happen automatically).


The Cogent rep says it’s been so long, the second card may have expired, in which case I should come to a Cogent office in New Mexico and get re-printed electronically (like the other Cogent rep specifically told me NOT to do when I had the chance).


Aug. 23: Another Cogent rep calls and says the FBI has scanned and rejected my second card. This rep gives me two code numbers and tells me to call NM DPS, give them those numbers, and ask them to start my name search.

I call DPS.

DPS: Only Jesus can help you.
ME: Can you transfer me to him?
DPS: He’s out of the office.
ME: That sounds about right.

Aug. 29: I finally reach Jesus, who has no idea why Cogent keeps sending people to him.


Jesus says once the second card is rejected, NM PED requests a name search automatically, but given my experience, I probably should call them just to be sure.

I call PED, leave a voicemail, and follow up with an email explaining my situation.

15 minutes later: I get a very apologetic email back from someone at PED, saying Cogent CONSTANTLY pulls this crap on out-of-state applicants and telling me she has just requested my name check, gotten results back, and printed my certificates.

Got that? New Mexico paid Cogent to spend SIX MONTHS blowing off tasks a state employee completed in 15 minutes. Meanwhile, schools are missing potential hires whose credentials have been taken hostage by Cogent’s ineptitude.

If I were a New Mexico taxpayer, I don’t think I’d be pleased to learn this.


Pinterest quackery

I’m beginning to think Pinterest has become the wormhole through which junk science enters the universe.

Sample du jour: an “alkalizing foods” chart telling people they can lose weight and prevent cancer by consuming certain foods to make their blood more alkaline.

Among the supposed “alkalizing” substances: lemon juice.

Those of you who passed chemistry class might, at this point, be giving that sentence an epic side-eye. But wait! You don’t understand! See, you put the lemon juice in water, which raises its pH, so when you drink it, it “alkalizes” your body. Science!




For those of you who flunked chemistry, let me explain:

Acids have a pH below 7.

Alkaline substances (a.k.a. bases) have a pH above 7.

Neutral substances have a pH right at 7. Pure water, for example, has a pH of 7.

When you add water to a strong acid, you get a weaker acid. When you add water to a strong base, you get a weaker base. You can’t convert an acid to a base (or vice versa) by diluting it. And you obviously can’t raise the pH of a substance by adding acid; that’s like trying to lighten paint by mixing in some more black.

Now for some biology:

Your blood is slightly alkaline, because blood is supposed to be slightly alkaline. The pH isn’t subject to the whims of your diet. If it were, a bag of Sour Patch Kids would probably kill you. The alkalinity of your blood doesn’t bounce around like your glucose level. It’s more like your body temperature: It has to remain within a very narrow window.

Even if your blood’s pH were subject to wild fluctuations, you couldn’t adjust it by means of diet, because anything you eat has to go through your stomach first, and your stomach is full of hydrochloric acid, diluted by your body to a pH somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5. To neutralize that, you’d basically (see what I just did there?) have to knock back a shot of Liquid Plum’r and chase it with a glass of Windex. I don’t recommend this, unless you’re just trying to die young, in the most horrifying possible manner.

What I’ve seen of the “alkalizing diet” isn’t particularly harmful on its face. It’s never a bad idea to go heavier on the vegetables and lighter on the aerosol cheese. But doing that won’t alter the pH of your blood — and it shouldn’t.


Folk Thursday: Tupac

For Devin, Joey and Tevin. Good luck in St. Louis this weekend, guys. I love you, and I am ridiculously proud of you for taking a stand. The root of the problems you’re trying to solve predates all of us, but I’ve known since the minute I set foot in Room 204 that if anybody can get this world moving in the right direction, my kids can.

Go save the world.❤

(And the rest of you: Say a prayer, light a candle, or just hold a good thought for my kids this weekend. They're planning to travel 400 miles to participate in a very large protest on a very controversial issue, and things could get … tense.)

Ms. Priddy

P.S.: I realize Tupac isn't folk, but his lyrics are at least as powerful as anything Bob Dylan or Joan Baez ever had to say. I'm just sorry they're still relevant. I'd hoped they'd be obsolete by this point, but we still have a long way to go.

Follow your bliss.

“Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.”
— Richard Bach

I’ve been having a conversation with a former student on Facebook about the difference between following your dreams and following the dreams other people are projecting onto you.

Throughout your life, just about everybody you encounter is going to have an opinion about what you should be doing with your life and what “success” is going to look like for you.

Understand two things:

1. You are never going to please those people.
2. You are not obligated to please those people.

I have had people give me the side-eye because I don’t have a master’s degree. I have had people give me the side-eye because I’m not on the evening news. I have had people give me the side-eye because I’m a [insert current job title] instead of a [insert higher-paying or more prestigious job title].

You know what those people have in common?


I don’t have a master’s degree because I have no need for a master’s degree. It won’t get me a raise or make me a better reporter. At this point, a stats class and an Adobe Illustrator workshop would be far more useful. When I point that out, I get a mouthful of platitudes about the personal growth that comes from being a lifelong learner. Never mind that since I got my bachelor’s degree in 1997, I have studied dog training, horseback riding, distance running, martial arts, neon sign repair, metaphysics, trig, calculus, acoustic guitar, and the history of U.S. 66, all purely for sh*ts and giggles. Apparently it doesn’t count as “lifelong learning” if it doesn’t have an expiration date.

I’m not on the evening news because I’m a print journalist, not a broadcaster. I’ve never taken a broadcasting class, never applied for a broadcasting job, and never said anything that would imply admiration or, really, even a modicum of respect for that profession. Being disappointed that a newspaper reporter isn’t on the evening news makes about as much sense as being disappointed that Andre Dawson never won a gold medal in figure skating.

I’m not wherever it is someone else wants me to be, doing whatever it is someone else thinks I should be doing, because I am too busy enjoying what I’m doing here and now.

Wherever you go, and whatever you do, someone is always going to be more than happy to project his own hopes, dreams, disappointments, priorities and expectations onto you if you’ll let him.



Mathematical misconceptions

As an old math teacher, I was more than a little concerned by some of the comments I saw on a stats-driven story we ran in the paper today. Because the misconceptions I saw in the comments are fairly common — and because some of my former students read this blog — I thought it might be worthwhile to address a couple of the more egregious examples here, for the benefit of anyone who has slept since freshman algebra.

Misconception 1: If you don’t have data for the full year, any conclusions you draw based on that data are statistically invalid.

Reality: Full-year stats are nice to have, but as long as you’re comparing apples to apples, you can draw meaningful conclusions without them. If I compared an 11-month period in one year to full-year data for another year, my conclusions would be invalid. But if I compare an 11-month period in one year to the same 11-month period for several preceding years, I can make valid comparisons even if I don’t have that twelfth month.

Misconception 2: If numbers look bigger, they are.

Reality: Not necessarily. Remember fractions? Ratios? Decimals? Let’s look at some examples:

1/2 is bigger than 1/3, and 1/3 is bigger than 1/4.

If your odds of something happening are 1 in 14 (which can also be expressed as 1:14 or 1/14), then that thing is more likely to occur than if your odds of it happening are 1 in 18 (1:18 or 1/18).

At least one reader didn’t understand that. He was convinced that even though the number of crimes in a given jurisdiction had gone down from one year to the next, the crime rate — expressed in the article and accompanying chart as a ratio of crimes to population, reduced to lowest terms — had gone up. I assume he drew this conclusion by looking at the second number in each ratio. Since that second number got bigger, he thought that meant the crime rate was going up.

These folks aren’t alone in their confusion. A lot of people don’t understand how stats work — which makes them easy targets for unscrupulous people who do.

You shouldn’t trust stats blindly, because they can be manipulated, and people can make mathematical errors. But you don’t have to be afraid of them, either. Statistical data can be incredibly useful, but it’s hard to use a tool if you don’t know how it works.


Bullying: Prologue

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the effect of bullying on kids. I don’t know whether it’s gotten any worse since I was a kid. I do know its consequences have become more apparent, forcing adults to pay more attention to it and make a better effort to intervene when they see it happening. The issue has come up again on my Facebook timeline because a 15-year-old boy in my dad’s hometown committed suicide last month, citing bullying as the reason.

Beginning when I was 7, and continuing for the better end of a decade, I endured near-constant ridicule by my peers.

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time that I was being bullied. In the ’80s and early ’90s, a bully was someone who shoved you down or beat you up. People who called you names weren’t bullies; they were just a pain in the ass. (As a society, we took a while to figure out that sometimes a pain in the ass is a serious injury.)

Admittedly, my ugly-duckling phase was spectacular by any metric, and asking a bunch of immature brats to overlook it would have been a wholly unrealistic request — but regardless of the relative accuracy of their comments, my peers’ tactless behavior left scars, some of which I’m just discovering 20 or 30 years later.

For instance:

I am desperately uncomfortable in social settings that involve large groups.

I rarely trust people when they compliment my appearance — and if I do believe them, my first instinct is to deflect the praise.

I have an extremely self-deprecating sense of humor.

I don’t dance.

I cuss like a sonofabitch.

I would rather chew off my own leg than let anybody see my tears.

That last bit is why I am not particularly looking forward to the project I’m about to do.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to take a closer look at each of these battle scars — partly to satisfy my own curiosity about the shapes they took, but mostly because I’m sick of hearing about kids closing the book before they get to the good parts, and if the story of how I survived a decade of verbal attacks and grew up to have the world by the tail can keep even one kid from killing himself over somebody else’s bullsh*t, then I need to suck it up and tell that story, even if it means giving up some secrets I’d rather keep.

Stay tuned. We’re finna kill some dragons.