Category Archives: Newspaper Articles

At present, I write for the McLean Highlander, my high school newspaper. This section includes my articles (mainly editorials) for the Highlander and the Longfellow Underground, a middle school underground newspaper that I had some fun with.

NOVA: Where Savvy Students Go

NOVA: Where Savvy Students Go

12/3/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

[This was a rough draft of the article. I hope to put the final draft up soon.]

Our school is in one of those strange areas where, if you tell your classmates that you’re going to a top-ranked community college, some of them will look down on you. In truth, attending Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC or NOVA for short) is one of the smartest education choices a McLean senior can make.

“You’re going to get [professors] at NOVA who have the best education; they’re professionals in their field,” government teacher Ian Howell said. In a region like Northern Virginia, as Howell pointed out, there’s no shortage of qualified educators. That’s why the college is able to offer 160 different associate-level degrees at eight different campuses.

It’s intriguing to read articles about skyrocketing college costs and cash-strapped students, then look over the community college’s fees. Those living on campus, according to Collegeboard.com, will pay less than 4,000 dollars for a year’s worth of education. To put that number in perspective: you could attend NVCC for two years and buy an SLK-Class Mercedes for less than the cost of two years at Randolph Macon. Howell knows of one senior who, after one and a half years at NOVA, transferred 38 community college credits to William and Mary. With W&M costing nearly 20,000 this year (according to Collegeboard.com), I give that student an A in economics.

True, if you’re looking for an intimate community with lots of students out on campus playing guitar, NVCC isn’t the place for you. This is a two-year school geared towards those looking for a great education at a great price. If your ideal “college experience” is one of football games and after-midnight beer bashes, don’t bother applying. But should you be undecided about your major, NOVA offers “the exact same courses and the exact same credits,” says Howell, as schools costing tens of thousands more.

A sizeable majority of seniors choose to attend NOVA every year. My fear is that many students never considered NVCC in the first place, if only for its reputation. Students here—and I am not innocent myself—often put more weight on a college’s name than they do on the school’s practicality. As a result, schools like Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth are venerated while NOVA becomes something of a punch line. If the Class of 2013 gave NOVA a serious look, I think many would be surprised by the caliber of its programs—and the transfer options students have to great colleges like William and Mary.

Consider two students. One gets accepted into—and decides to attend—Harvard University. The other goes to NOVA. Judging by colleges alone, many of us would call the first kid the smarter of the two. (If they got into Harvard, they must be, right?) But somewhere in the selection process, the latter student realized that Northern Virginia Community College has a stunning array of classes and credits for an unrivaled cost. Based on that decision, I’m almost inclined to call the second student the brighter one.

We’re lucky to live in a country with over 4,000 colleges and universities, and even lucky to live in a state where a college education comes at $4,000 a year. I just hope that my classmates won’t shrug off the opportunity to attend NOVA.

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What Winter Will Bring

What Winter Will Bring:

An Amateur Weatherman’s Forecast

11/2/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

If December is the most wonderful time of the year, November has to be the most stressful—for meteorologists, at least. This is the season of winter forecasts, where amateurs and professionals alike try to predict how much snow and cold the coming months will bring.

Before I made my own forecast, I thought it best to consult an expert in the field: Matt Ross, a contributor to the Washington Post weather blog Capitalweather.com. As he explained, predicting an entire winter season isn’t easy.

“In a medium [or] long range outlook, the best you can hope for is painting a general idea,” he said. “The more specific you get the higher likelihood of a [bust].”

Ross likes to use “analogs,” or years with similar spring, summer and fall weather, in making his predictions. He cited 1917-1918, 1943-1944 and 1996-1997 as some seasons that might match ours. His second major tool? A strange realm of weather data called the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO for short. For December, at least, that factor seems to be going the snow fans’ way.

“The strongest signal is for a cold [December] which is pretty typical in very week La Ninas following a stronger La Nina like we had last winter,” Ross said. “La Nina,” the opposite of El Niño, refers to the cooler-than-normal Pacific Ocean temperatures that we saw last winter.

Of course, predicting the weather takes more than analogs and the Pacific Ocean. Ross also cited temperature trends, precipitation amounts and hurricane statistics as vital factors in his forecasts. Needless to say, predicting the winter takes more than a thermometer and a good imagination.

Taking Ross’s personal forecast and advice into account, I set off to predict the kind of snowfall McLean would see for the 2008 season. First, I had to consider our region’s climate. According to a map put out by the Baltimore/Washington National Weather Service, McLean receives 22 inches of snow in an average season.

The problem is, Mother Nature has underperformed in the last few years; my records for the 2007-2008 area indicated only 8.3 inches of the white stuff and two school closings. Besides, with the District’s urban heat effect and the decrease in moisture the Shenandoah Mountains contribute to, we receive only a fraction of the snow areas further west get. (Some parts of western Maryland can expect over 100 inches per year, for example.) And with global warming looking increasingly certain, it’s hard to say how many more “normal” 23-inch winters we’ll see.

The good news for snow fans, however, is what happened in October. 13 out of Washington’s last October days had lows below average, according to Accuweather.com, and much of the Northeast saw three to twelve inches of snow. (I even got to throw a snowball during a college visit in New York.) Though day-by-day conditions can’t predict a season’s worth of weather, students hoping for school cancellations can take heart in our recent cold spell.

In the end, I decided to err on the optimistic side. Like Ross, I predict a cold December, but also feel that we’ll get a minor snow event during the holiday season.

While Ross forecasts warmer temperatures for January and February, I think that we’ll see an even mix of cold streaks and heat waves—resulting in average temperatures and a good amount of snow. We’ve had some interesting March weather in the last few years, so I feel confident calling for a winter weather event in the early part of that month.

As far as numbers go, I think the McLean area will experience five to seven snow events this year—with the bulk of those occurring in January and February. 21 inches of snow seems like a reasonable guess, and though it’s hard to forecast school closings, I think we’ll have at least three snow days by the time March rolls around.

Winter forecasting isn’t easy, and I’ll surely be proven wrong on parts of my forecast. Then again, it never hurts to hope for snow. As Ross said, “Warm dry winters are awful.”

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I wish I were a freshman

I wish I were a freshman

11/2/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

When I was a freshman, I envied the seniors more than anyone else in the school. Perhaps it was the car keys, or the amusement park trips, or the knowledge that college was just a year away. It’s strange, though. I’m now a 12th grader myself, yet I find myself envying the freshmen.

Oh, sure, it’s nice to drive home from school. I do enjoy getting out five minutes early on Friday. But for the most part, I’ve had little—if any—time to enjoy what’s supposed to be the best year of high school. In one class alone, I’ve answered 180 multiple-choice questions, written six in-class essays and one eight-page research paper and summarized, cited and analyzed 50 newspaper articles. That’s not to say my other courses have been any easier, despite my intentions to enjoy my last year at Mclean.

The problem with the 12th-grade schedule, however, is that it includes more courses than what you see on the transcript. Take that fun class called Applications. For homework, you write a mess of college essays, fill out “supplement” after “supplement,” rush to get three types of response forms into the counselor, solicit teachers for recommendation essays, spend Saturday mornings taking—or retaking—tests you were supposed to have finished months ago, market yourself in college interviews, rush around the country visiting schools, fork over hundreds of dollars for application fees, convince your parents to let you apply out-of-state, fill out financial aid and scholarship forms—and, once all that’s said and done, pray for big, juicy packets to appear in the mailbox with “Congratulations!” on the front. Rest assured, underclassmen: your history paper will seem a breeze compared to the sort of work college applications has come to be. Oh, and don’t forget: this is one of the worst times you could ever apply for higher education, considering the competition and the costs.

All the while, the freshman have had quite a blast. They’ve had far more groups events than the Class of ’09, if you count the orientation session and McLeadership meetings. Each student has an upperclassmen that they can call on for homework help and advice. (Imagine if every senior had a freshman who would fill out college forms for them!) The Class of ’12 even boasts their very own room—G255—dedicated to them for after-school tutoring and relaxation. (What do the seniors get? A parking spot.)

I don’t want to sound underappreciative. After all, I’m looking forward to June as much as any other senior. Unfortunately, Hershey’s Park and Graduation are still hundreds of days away. In the meantime, I have applications due for colleges whose rejection rates have increased as steadily as my workload.

The rest of the school sees us when we’re at our happiest: socializing in the halls; looking goofy on the morning show; fighting for McLean on the field and the court; and, of course, driving home from school. That, at least, was how I used to perceive senior year. What underclassmen don’t see are our all-night homework sessions, our frantic studying for AP tests and our rush to get college applications taken care of. Rest assured, anyone who judges senior year by what they see in High School Musical 3 are in for quite a shock.

I admit it, freshmen: I wish I were one of you. Kids might have looked down on me (in more ways than one) when I was in the ninth grade, but at least I got to bed before midnight. At least I didn’t sweat over test scores and essay deadlines like I do now. We get a couple more privileges than you, but few of us have any time to enjoy them.

Enjoy your years as underclassmen, Class of 2012. After all, when your turn to be seniors rolls around, you may find yourself jealous of the Class of 2015.

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Specialty Pizzas: A Newspaper Spread

The PDF link (see below) features a pizza spread that I worked on for the McLean Highlander, our student newspaper.

specialty-pizzas-spread

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Obama is not your Savior

Obama is not your Savior

10/8/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

President Bush and Barack Obama might see one another differently, but this much is true: both have benefited from the American people’s tendency to turn to the executive branch for protection. George Bush’s approval rating surged to 90 percent following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Barack Obama, in the midst of a recession, has won enough support from concerned voters to take a definite lead in the presidential race.

The problem is, Bush didn’t exactly save the country from the crises facing it in 2001. Considering this country’s history with “change” candidates, I wonder if an Obama presidency will turn out any different.

Whenever the United States is endangered, either by a terrorist attack or a lagging economy, the American people faithfully turn to the executive branch for their problems to be solved. Plenty of us envision the president as a fully understanding, fully capable individual who can turn the lives of 300,000,000 people around with a few strokes of the pen.

The problem with this vision is that it leaves out one important element: the American people. Barack Obama might be a capable leader, but he makes up 1/300,000,000th of our population. The more we depend on an individual to change our country, the less initiative we have to support his or her efforts. It simply isn’t fair to expect greatness from a president while sitting on our hands.

Now, it may seem as if I have little faith in Obama’s potential. With all due respect, I think it is a worse fault to have too much. President Bush, knowing that 90% of America trusted in him in the weeks following 9/11, was able to use that support to launch a “war on terror “that has since decreased said ratings to the mid-twenties. Wariness on the general public’s part may have prevented the conflict in Iraq from turning into a bloodbath.

But even if Obama does inspire Americans to help out in the effort, and even if the public exercises cautious support—a rarity in politics—the candidate will still have two entities to deal with: the Supreme Court and the Houses of Congress. Not that this is a bad thing. Our system of checks and balances makes sure that presidents don’t end up steering the country off the road, even if our legislative process puts the brakes on law-making from time to time. If you’d rather move to a state in which one charismatic, ambitious leader has all the power, you’re free to give Russia or China a spin. Otherwise, don’t expect that Obama’s plans will go unchecked.

Should the Democratic ticket win come November 4, there’s no doubt this country will see some change. The one certainty about America is that it never stays the same.

But the Democrats expecting an overnight solution to any domestic or foreign problem would be wise to remember our current president’s experience. No candidate—black, white, Harvard-educated, war-tested—can “save” the United States single-handedly.

The upsetting truth is that we’ll have to lend a hand.

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The three classes missing from your schedule

[Recently installed a keystroke counter on my computer. (Not a keylogger, mind you; a key counter.) What I found was that this story, about 5300 characters in length, actually took some 13,000 characters to type. It just goes to show that the writing process takes a little editing.]

 

The three classes missing from your schedule.

9/15/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

 

 

You’re not getting a full education.

I don’t mean to be provocative here. Sure, there are seven courses (or even eight) in your school day; sure, you’re assigned homework for and tested on each one. What I mean to say is that your schedule has a few gaps in it. Cracks that increasingly few schools are willing to fill in.

Ever since standardized tests became trendy in education, institutions across the country have been shedding extracurriculars like dogs shed hair. Though many of these course cuts are understandable, a good deal are hard to excuse.

The following list mentions just a few classes I feel are worth the extra budget money and decreased SOL prep time to introduce. Disagree if you will, but remember—it’s your education.

 

I’ll start with that time-honored elementary school staple: geography. The word brings to memory images of fifth graders spinning around a globe with a list of countries on the desk. And yet, geography entails much more than finding Moldova on a map. It’s about understanding the nature of borders, learning how physical resources impact a country’s development and studying human influence on the environment. Taking a class in the subject is like studying environmental science, natural history and culture at the same time.

    In the eyes of most superintendents, though, high school education is no place for geography. The results are visible. I just finished watching two CNN map clips; the first put Pakistan in East Africa, and the second mistook Syria for Afghanistan. (More eye-opening yet is the Texas weatherman who confused southern California and south Florida.) With all due respect to Mississippi, it seems the rest of the country doesn’t give it much notice; in a 2006 Associated Press story, nearly half of our generation couldn’t locate it on a map. According to the same poll, three fifths couldn’t find Iraq. Wasn’t this supposed to the globally aware generation?

    We don’t even need a separate geography course, for that matter. It would be perfectly fine to integrate the subject with World History or Earth Science. Whatever course of action the county takes, our superintendent needs to realize that, to have a “globally aware” society, we need to be aware of the globe.

    

    Thanks to pressure from the SOL, SAT and other acronyms, high schools today offer plenty of ways to teach students what to type. But how about a class that teaches kids how to type?

    With the computing era in its middle ages, almost all of us have been exposed to the benefits of computers. To be able to type up reports and stories on a keyboard instead of a typewriter (or by hand, of course) is one of the great things about today’s technology.

    Unless one can touch type (write without having to look at the keys), though, many of the benefits of this “information age” are wasted. If you’re the type who taps out letters with two fingers, you probably average some thirty words a minute. That’s not horrible. And yet, should you learn to type without having to look at the keys, your speed could easily be doubled or tripled. That certainly was the case for me.

    This is one subject that can be learned outside of school, of course. But any kid who doesn’t have the initiative to learn typing skills puts her or himself at a great disadvantage. If our schools really are intent on giving us a superb writing education, high school typing courses are a must.

 

    The final class I suggest is the one about which I feel the strongest. This may seem strange, especially because the course I suggest is to have no course at all.

    Independent study, the hallmark of liberal arts colleges and some private schools, is the one class in a schedule that beats out the standardization game. If a student is a budding musician, he or she can spend the period in the band room. Writing-minded kids could spend their time in the journalism room or the library. Future biology majors would have labs at their disposal. A study hall period would open up the school’s curriculum by offering students the chance to study something otherwise unavailable to them.

    Would this mean one less period a day? No—one less regulated period a day. It would be the student’s responsibility to make the most out of the privilege to go beyond the regular curriculum; if they wasted the chance, by all means—herd them into SAT Prep 101 and lock the door.

    High schoolers may not perfectly know what they want to pursue in life, but everyone at least has an idea. It’s time that more schools offered students an independent study option and let them pursue the fledging interest that might just become their future career.

 

    It’s not our school’s fault, nor even our county’s fault, that subjects like the ones above have been snubbed by mainstream education. Blame instead the emphasis on test scores and standardization that has replaced schedule alternatives with exam-minded classes. (So much for diversity in education.)

    At the very least, you are still in control of the learning that takes place beyond the classroom. Spin around a globe; buy a typing program; spend an hour a day doing something you actually care about. With a little effort outside of school, you might be able to fill the cracks in your schedule that mainstream education has neglected.

 


 

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The Two Faces of Segregation

[A possible Highlander editorial in the future, but for now, a standalone piece.]

The Two Faces of Segregation

6/9/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

The history books purport that segregation ended on the 2nd of July, 1964, the moment the Civil Rights Act was passed. No longer could a white owner evict an African-American tenant based on the color of his or her skin. No longer, the bill claimed, would students be classified by race and shipped off to separate schools.

I wish with all my heart that the professors of history were correct; as it is, they were only half right. The lawmakers took care of the legal side of segregation, but its subtler, more prevalent cousin lives on.

The story of the divided fifties and sixties was the story of “de jure,” or “by law,” segregation. Jim Crow laws and court rulings that declared schools to be both separate and equal were but a few examples of the legalized division that King and Malcolm X took on. Though only part of the problem, de jure segregation took on the term’s full definition—as if the only things keeping one race from the other were bills and legislation.

This was the concrete, conspicuous half of segregated America; in all honesty, it was also the tamer side. The laws that divided white and black were imposing at their height, yet weak enough to be shattered by judges’ gavels and Johnson’s pen. Today, de jure segregation exists only in the history books.

Unfortunately, the issue of segregation goes far beyond the reach of bills and court rulings. Children of all races are allowed to laugh and learn together in the same classroom, yet the school at which I learn is mostly white—and the school at which I tutor nearly all Hispanic and African American. No landlord may deny a prospective tenant housing on the basis of skin color, but regardless, neighborhoods in the capital city are still classified as “black” or “white.” The famous legal decisions of the fifties and sixties had a muted impact on the demographics of colleges, let alone lunch tables.

The problem is that, engrossed in the timid creature that is segregation by law, our historians and lawmakers forgot about a much larger and more dangerous animal. It cannot be reined in with court proceedings or tranquilized with amendments; it prowls every neighborhood street, every office building in the United States. Worse yet, this animal is largely invisible.

The name most assign this creature is “de facto” segregation. It is comprised not of court rulings nor congressional decisions, but of economic gaps and subtle prejudices that still manage to tear us apart.

Consider this tale of two schools. McLean High of Northern Virginia is 70 percent white; MacFarland Middle, nestled in Northwest Washington, is 100 percent non-white. The former is included (however arbitrarily) in Newsweek Magazine’s “Top 100” public schools list for 2008; MacFarland made less positive headlines for a school shooting in 2006. McLean just had a renovation, whereas MacFarland looks ready to crumble.

No longer can these discrepancies be explained away by de jure segregation. They point instead to a sobering reality: economic gaps and our own closet prejudices are holding minorities back from the schools and jobs that they deserve. There are no laws left to scapegoat, no segregationists to point the finger at. You and I are the problem.

Take your eyes off the paper or screen and look around. Chances are, you are surrounded by people who look like you, speak like you and might even dress like you. The newspapers can talk all they want about this supposed age of integration, but the typical American goes a long way towards disproving them.

We cannot blame “the man” for de facto divisions; instead, it’s time that we mustered up the courage to blame ourselves. Lunch tables, office boardrooms and even the houses of Congress are all evidence of the same fact: the majority of Americans are self-segregating, no matter their intent. Today’s supposed post-racial country has carried on its old traditions of division and discrepancy, thanks in part to citizens like me who are too lazy, too scared—to brain-dead to fully integrate.

The good news is that, in being the problem, we are also the solution. King and Malcolm X had to cut their way through legal undergrowth for the house of de jure to fall, but we merely need to reach out to those who seem the most distant from us. Every new handshake or friendship on our part is a nail in the coffin; every step towards equality in payment and job opportunity will help put this era to rest.

The civil rights heroes of the fifties and sixties spoke of the need to wake up to the prejudiced laws in America. I suppose it is time that we woke up to our prejudiced selves, got out of bed and fought for economic and social change in a still-divided country. Until that point, the history books that write about the “end” of segregation will only be telling half the story.

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