217. A Word on Statistics: Wislawa Szyborska

I love data more than I do poetry.

When I read poetry, I find it intellectually rigorous. I like to do analysis. Or break it down and see how it works. The idea of meter and rhyme and how it comes together–supports the underlying theme–is fascinating. Writing poetry is hard. Poets are builders. Elegant builders. They are a class above me.

I appreciate that. But I don’t write poetry–too hard. I know enough about poetry to know that my writing is mediocre and that knowledge distracts me from it being a true outlet (instead, I post blogs). And I don’t really read poetry for fun like my wife does, except to take it apart with analysis.

But data, I like for the same reason I appreciate poetry–BUT I CAN DO IT. As this is the golden age of data driving instruction, this is my time. Which is where I make my shameless plug for another blog Educational Statistics Fun! And also my most recent post (relevant to middle school English teachers) about the DRP as a measure.

As data becomes more of our life, more and more poems seem to address that dehumanizing element of an information driven society. It’s not new. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” is a great example, written long, long ago. But the lives of our students have fundamentally changed. Privacy is at an end. At the same time we can no longer post test scores publicly and every email has a confidentiality warning (all in the name of privacy), our students are being tracked and filling databases with minute details for scores of people to see. No one talks about the abusive parent that might be affecting their learning, but we have a nice data trail of their failure to thrive. Our cameras track who wrote what graffiti on the wall, while notifications come up when they harass a peer using the school’s gmail account. And when it goes into the local newspaper that 78% of seventh grade students met proficiency in math, the other 22% know who they are.

Where are they? What Szymborska offers is a use of percentages to make a point. Data shows fractions. It shows ratios. And those ratios reveal. Just like writing and poetry and art does.

Look at your class and create data. Dont’ worry about it being scientific. Or do. In fact, ask students what “valid” data even is. How many agree what that definition? Whatever. Collect data. What data is important to them? Who plays baseball? Bah. Reveal.

Here are data points kids care about:

  • How many people like me?
  • What is the chance this boy/girl will dance with me?
  • How many kids in the room would you consider “nice”?
  • Do I look like a dork?
  • How many friends do I have? What’s the “normal” number?
  • Am I normal?

Show of hands?  Eyes closed?  Or not.  Brainstorm a list of questions.  Perhaps they don’t want to know the answer, but let them use the answer–or their perceived answer or feared answer–as the content of the poem.  “Every kid in this room is okay with me, but zero percent know who I am.”

Data is telling.  The next question to ask is if it is valid.

A Word on Statistics
by Wislawa Szymborska
(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)

Out of every hundred people,
those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four — well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
(though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred —
a figure that has never varied yet.


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