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Introducing Tom Sawyer Principle for fame, fortune

Sept. 2, 2011 at 4:02 a.m.


After 30 years in education, I have distilled the following laws about Power-Point presentations at inservice:

Those given by teachers are angling to become an administrator.

Those given by administrators are angling for a cubicle in the district.

Those given by district cubicle-dwellers are angling for a berth in the education department of a university.

Those given by members of university education departments are angling for a career as a consultant.

Those given by consultants are angling for a career in the Department of Education.

The experts always introduce a new paradigm. Some of what these experts say may be useful. But you'd think they had invented the wheel, fire AND the Internet in one sitting. If they play their cards right, they will coin a phrase that will catch the attention of the experts in education. It matters not that this year's expert will negate last year's expert. Sometimes they negate each other in the same week. One moment we're enjoined to raise the bar. And then we're instructed to record an I for incomplete instead of a zero for overdue assignments. Education author, Alfie Kohn, wants to do away with homework altogether. Guess how many slackers are in HIS cheering section?

There is some argument about whether workshops are too abstract instead of being more concrete. Some presenters are accused of being too academic instead of practical. Teachers have long ago learned to tune out any statement that begins with the ominous marker "Research shows..."

On the other hand, it's possible to be too mundane. For example, you'd be amazed at how many ways there are to fold a sheet of paper. There's a taco fold, a pizza fold, hot dog and hamburger fold, even a burrito fold. It has the advantage of appealing to the teen's most dominant trait: a constant craving for food. Well, as they say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Once you get to his heart, it's just a hop, skip and a jump to his head.

As if the experts weren't bad enough, there's no shortage of celebrity input. Rosie O'Donnell, for example, opined we don't need to teach math now that we have computers. Of course, the folks who run the districts aren't really concerned with history. If they were, they'd pay more attention to what worked in the past.

As an antidote to current fads, we should turn to the classics for advice. I've often said that education is a job best left to the educated. And who better to educate us than Mark Twain? America's greatest author had a great deal to offer in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

In the second chapter, Tom is punished by Aunt Polly for one of his many infractions by whitewashing the fence around the house. He begins his task with the same enthusiasm most of us would have for a term paper or corporate report on Saturday. Along come his friends to observe and gloat over his fate. But Tom appears so absorbed in his work, that his tormenters are converted. The venerated author assures us that Tom's friends "came to jeer, but remained to whitewash."

How did Tom accomplish this? He let on to Ben Rogers, the first person on the scene, that the job was so important, that Aunt Polly entrusted it to the one person who could do it right. After much importuning and bribery, Twain records that "Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart." By the end of his task, he yielded a kite in good repair, a dead rat and a string to swing it with. "He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar - but no dog - the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash."

Here's where I come in with the promise of fame and fortune as an educational expert with something I call the Tom Sawyer Principle:

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it - namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

There it is in a nutshell. No more Power-of-I opportunities to turn in work seven weeks overdue. If you earn a 35 on something, we're not spotting you a 50. No sitting in the library for credit recovery. And you have to wear clothing that'll get you past the personnel office. If you pay 80 bucks for a pair of jeans that look like the night shift at the factory, you've got more money than sense. And if you think they're acceptable, you've got more chutzpah than money.

If you want to cross the Atlantic for another educational expert, Shakespeare said the same thing with Elizabethan elan:

But this swift business/I must uneasy make, lest too light winning/Make the prize light.

Patrick Hubbell is a resdient of Victoria and a Spanish teacher in the Victoria school district.

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