The world is a magical place

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/28/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

A robin that was hop-hop-hopping along on a cold November morning espied me looking at a pink rose that had opened in full defiance of the weather, and said, “A lovely day to be singing and dancing, is it not?”

“I am thankful for the day, and your ebullience; and for all the stories you carry on your little wings,” I answered.

“It is the little things in life that matter, after all,” the robin continued. “Look at this Mexican elderberry. Its roots are old and weak, but still it rejoices in every butterfly that flits by, and every cloud that passes overhead. Even in infirmity, it gathers all its strength to put forth clusters of white blossoms for our enjoyment.”

“I, too, am thankful for all the little things. Why, just moments ago, I saw you with your partner performing a ballet in the air. Your flight was perfectly harmonized, as if you knew exactly what was in your partner’s thoughts. That’s a little miracle, is it not?”

“Everything is a miracle,” the robin answered.

“How true,” I said. “A peacock’s feather, a mynah’s song, and a rainbow in the sky — they all stirred strong emotions in my heart when I was only so tall. I knew then that the world had height, and I wanted to touch every aspect of it that was covered in new light.”

I remembered Cato’s soliloquy on the immortality of the soul: “If there is a Power above us, — and that there is, all Nature cries aloud through all her works — He must delight in virtue; and that which He delights in must be happy.”

Across the street, two children came out of their home with springs in their steps, and started playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. The squares on the ground were drawn with flamboyant chalk, and the diagram was a winged bird as tall as the sky.

“I am thankful for children, too,” I said, “for they have pure eyes and pure minds.”

“The tragedy of growing up,” the robin posited, “is that we lose the child in us. Real maturity happens when we rediscover that lost child. It is only for the second child that the sky opens out its charms.”

“Yes indeed,” I said. “Through recovered innocence alone we see the world anew in all its rightful glory.”

An army of white, billowy clouds marched across the sky, waving the flag of man’s accomplishments, from the fire in the cave to the fire across the universe.

“I go from here to there chasing seasons, and I do not know quite how it happens. Much has been accomplished, and much yet needs to be done,” said the robin.

I thought about the perfect ellipse of the earth’s orbit that makes all life possible. I thought about the peculiar dance of water’s density near freezing that keeps the lower strata of ponds and lakes safe for marine life. I thought about the magnet in the hummingbird’s brain that brings it to my yard every spring. I thought about the wonders that remain wonders long after science has connected the spheres and made a bridge of understanding.

“I am thankful for the mind,” I said to the robin, “for it gives us this moment, and all other moments. We may arrive at each day adding and subtracting, carrying joy in one hand and some grief in the other for things that have passed us by, but the world is a magical place, and life is precious.”

“I have my colors and my songs, and I hope I have given pleasure with both, perhaps to touch the speech of angels,” the robin said. With that, he sang a cheery Thanksgiving song, and bid me adieu.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address:

When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do

What do good readers do? 
This is a difficult question for any person to answer, as reading comprehension is an invisible process for the most part. A struggling reader cannot see the reading comprehension strategies a strong reader uses when reading. Struggling readers can’t see their classmates re-read, make personal connections, visualize, or make inferences. As a teacher, it is important to make such processes visible in the classroom. Educators must model reading strategies, allow collaborative discussions about reading, and provide opportunities for repeated practice of making meaning of texts.
Recently I read Kylene Beers’ text “When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do - A Guide for Teachers 6-12” in an attempt to better my teaching practices surrounding reading.
Beers lists practical, easy to integrate pre-reading, during reading, and after-reading strategies that educators can implement in their own classroom. She draws on over 20 years of personal experience as both a teacher and reading specialist to share what she has learned and shows teachers how to help struggling readers with:
  • comprehension
  • vocabulary
  • fluency
  • word recognition
  • student motivation
See the following Google Doc for my detailed notes on this textbook.

We need good teachers, not puppets, in our schools

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/21/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

A bat costs $1 more than a ball.

Together they cost $1.10.

What is the price of the ball?

This should be a simple math problem to most high-school students, and I would expect them, without use of paper and pencil, to render a correct response inside of 30 seconds using simple algebra.

Yet, more than 50 percent of students at Princeton, M.I.T. and Yale fell into the intuitive trap that might excusably ensnare a sixth grader.

At lesser-known universities, students missing the answer rocketed to as high as 80 percent.

Clearly, we have a serious problem in education.

Public education is supposed to prepare students for college, but the trouble is that it is suffocatingly structured to fit accountability standards, and too much inside the rails of get-them-to-pass-the-test thinking.

I remember a time when I was having a discussion with my students about simple harmonic motion when a visitor — a putative expert in the field of teaching science — walked into my classroom to observe my lesson.

When there was a pause, she sidled up to me, and said, “This is not in your lesson plan.”

“I am ashamed to say,” I admitted, with a touch of humor that might have been lost on her, “that many of the things I teach are not in my lesson plans.”

“It is also not in the sixth-grade curriculum,” she pressed forth, unfurling a sheet of objectives and student expectations.

“Somehow we got involved with the time period of pendulums. It is a fascinating topic, because it can be counter-intuitive. Last week, I was talking to my class about Bernoulli’s Principle. It, too, is not in the curriculum. It, too, can be counter-intuitive.”

The visitor’s countenance betrayed the fact that she did not like my answers.

On another occasion, I was reading aloud from an essay a student had written, when another so-called expert dropped in unannounced.

After she had taken a seat in the back of the room, I continued with my lesson.

“Sarah, you have a fondness for similes,” I said. “More to the truth, you have a great fondness for similes. Your style is euphuistic.”

“What’s that?” asked a boy, less from curiosity, and more from an appetite for conversation.

“It is a style of writing that was popular in the Elizabethan era, and it employed a lot of similes like Sarah does. I will bring some samples to share with you the next time.”

“Sarah uses too many similes,” the boy declared, in a peremptory tone of voice.

“You don’t know anything,” Sarah countered.

“Your writing would be better if you don’t use too many yoo-fyoo things,” the boy insisted, with a flash of invention.

The visitor, I noticed, was taking notes, and I had little doubt that her comments visited dark clouds rather than sunshine.

Today’s classrooms have become dull industries of mediocrity.

They run on predictable schedules.

The topic and pace of lessons are predetermined by bureaucrats masquerading as educators.

The smart teachers with a penchant and talent for teaching tend to succumb to the pressure to conform, or gravitate toward other career choices.

The situation is not helped by a new generation of teachers who themselves are the product of a fractured educational system.

If education is to regain its mettle and luster, if students are to become architects of our future, then good teachers must be restored to their rightful throne, and the kingdom of learning made sanguine again.

Ramnath Subramanian is a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address:

Thinking minds are key to the health of our republic

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the Times

Posted: 11/14/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

If I were called upon to give this age a moniker, I would go with “The Age of Borrowing.” Most people, it seems to me, are willing to live by other peoples’ ideas and calculations. So widespread is the proclivity to lean on others’ thinking that “true” opinion has become as rare a commodity as an honest politician.

People hold positions on a wide variety of subjects, of course, but most often these coincide with those of the political parties they support, or the long-held belief systems of their parents. Any new information that runs counter to these positions is immediately trivialized or deemed to be false. Truth, in other words, sits inside a suffocatingly small box.

“Too often,” wrote John F. Kennedy, “we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

It is so much easier to slip into a uniform than to dress to individual taste and occasion. Thought takes work. Why not just go along with what has been handed down, or what one read in the paper, or heard on the news?

Inside the framework of the universe, a man and his ideas are minuscule in scope. So, there is nothing wrong with borrowing, as long as one inspects each idea for virtue and veracity.

One must take one’s most cherished idea and construct a defense for its antithesis. This exercise is essential, for it alone can accentuate the idea and give it anchor; without it, the idea may just be a chimera masquerading for attention and solicitude.

A man must always have his guard up against verisimilitude.

Personal opinions should be fully and critically examined; otherwise, we allow the shadows of falsehood and deception to distemper discourse.

A high-ranking official at an institution decided to put out false information. At another institution, an official withheld bad news. Both claim they misled the people for their own good. Why bring negativity into communication? After all, it is best to have on rose-colored glasses.

Truth is illusory, for it rides on wings that often are burdened by exaggeration, inexactitude, and mendacity. However, we can get close to the truth by stripping away the burden on the wings. That requires study and work.

For the “Age of Borrowing” to move toward salubrious ground, pubic education has to put on a “real” mantle of strength.

If I have said it once, I have said it a hundred times: everything rides on a quality education.

It is not enough that students know how to calculate the mechanical advantage of a pulley system, or that they can recognize the author of a literary passage based on content and style. What good is an equation or a well-read book, if a student has not learned to think for himself.

The labor of thought is not always a pleasant activity, especially where it relies on the self for direction and distillation, but it alone can produce success where success truly counts. One cannot get to new places by using other peoples’ maps.

The trouble with public education today is that many high-school graduates are deficient in knowledge required to enter college. We know this because they are rightfully thrust into remedial classes — a second go at a high-school education, as it were — to ready them for higher learning.

More egregiously, the engine of testing and accountability that powers public education does a shoddy job of cultivating critical thinking skills in students.

A fractured educational system is a great threat to society and our republic, for an education constructed of inert ideas that lead young minds to borrow than to think, can open the door, little by little, to all forms of bad government.

Ramnath Subramanian is  a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address:

Study of the Constitution should play a large role in education

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/07/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

Students like passing notes in class, especially after instruction is over and work has been completed, and the prospect of silently reading a book does not hold vast appeal.When I was teaching, I used to find notes on the floor that had missed their intended targets. A few even landed on my desk. These paper projectiles were folded neatly and assiduously to aeronautical perfection, and carried inside them, I presumed, information of great import.”A missive that missed,” I said once, picking up one wayward object. “I wonder who wrote this, and to whom it was written.”

A hush fell over the classroom. It was the beginning of the school year, and students were still trying to get a full measure of their teachers.

“Aha!” I said, looking at the face of the projectile, “both the sender’s and addressee’s names are here.” After a pause, I added, “Now, what shall I do with this?”

“When I was in first grade, my teacher taped a note to Javier’s forehead, and made him stand in the corner,” said one boy, in animated tones.

“Read it to the class, Mr. Sub,” said a girl, who had a penchant for the dramatic. “Then post it to the bulletin board.”

I pretended to muse over these options, and then said, “You will agree that the note is a form of communication, and that it has not impeded my instruction or your learning. Further, let me assume that the note does not contain anything that is ugly or unkind. Proceeding from that premise, the right thing to do would be to give the note to the intended recipient.”

Some faces registered disappointment, others surprise.

As I handed the note to its owner, I said, “I hope the writer has used good language and proper grammar.”

In a small way, this lesson in respecting privacy was a precursor to the lessons I delivered in the study of our Constitution.

At my school, during Constitution Week, all teachers were required to spend a day talking to students about America’s venerable document. I spent an entire week on it. I placed special emphasis on the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, for these covered areas that I felt children could relate to well.

When school administrators searched lockers for one reason or another, some students expressed constitutional concerns, and I sat down with them and had a discussion.

As I reminisced about these experiences, I wondered what my students would think about the NSA spying scandal that was sweeping over the nation, and even gaining international attention and reproach.

Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed profound concern over U.S. intelligence allegedly targeting her mobile phone, and said that such an activity would be “a serious breach of trust.” The chancellor’s words carry special weight, for she grew up in East Germany when it was a surveillance state.As the director of the Birla Planetarium in Calcutta, my father traveled to many parts of the world to attend conferences and to record astronomical events. He once was in Jena, East Germany, visiting the firm Carl Zeiss, makers of optical instruments. One of the heads of the organization, a friend of my father, invited him to his home for dinner. During the repast, he informed my father in writing that he could not talk freely because his house may be bugged.For our children, the world will be far more complicated than it ever was for us. We need to prepare them for this world with an education that is firmly sanguine in all aspects of history and the American Constitution.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address: