"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

They're ba-ack!!

They're your former students. They're wonderful. You remember them fondly. You help they're doing well and that they're happy. You'll never forget something or other they did or said.

You can't remember their name.

I wrote back in September about the annual duty of learning names of new students. But these are people you're meeting for the first time. Most students will cut you a little slack if it takes you a couple of weeks to get all the names down.

But when students you've known, often for years because you were involved in extracurricular activities together, drop in for a little pre-holiday visit, misplacing a name in your head brings on shame and disgrace, not to mention the implication that you've forgotten that student. They'd have to be a fool not to realize when I greet them with a "Hey, there you are! How are you?" but no name, that I just couldn't care enough to recall their name.

But it's not true. It's just that, for me anyway, I use the mode of memory I developed in school myself and employed so usefully when I was (briefly) an actor, often juggling three different scripts in my head at a time. You have to work on a "need to remember" basis. You put that temporary information in a high-traffic space which gets plenty of stimulation, but not into deep storage where you put things like the year of Shakespeare's birth and what exactly anaphora is. That way, when you don't need that temporary info, you can easily dump it without bruising your brain cells. Otherwise, you remember that stuff forever, along with other things you have no use for, such as the batting average of every member of the 1969 Mets and names of all the Marx Brothers films in chronological order.

But faces seem to go into deep storage whether you need it or not. We are evidently pre-verbal animals, or at least those parts of our brains are the last to go. So, beloved former students, when we see those glowing faces, sometimes buried under beards and strange tattoos (not to mention how the boys have changed), we do know EXACTLY who you are. We just wish that you had a bar code tattooed on your neck that could be automatically scanned as you enter our classroom so your name would pop up on a display on our desks. (That would be super-cool, wouldn't it?)

Don't be hurt. We remember you, we know you. Some of you -- we love. Just-- when you visit us, come with a friend who keeps saying your name over and over out loud to help us out.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cheap student tix for NYC theater

Follow Student Rush here. (http://twitter.com/#!/StudentRushNYC). They offer free tickets to Broadway & Off-Broadway shows to benefit students and other theatergoers.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Free stuff! Free stuff! Free stuff!

As a high school teacher I am frequently called upon -- formally and informally -- to support students writing research papers in other disciplines, especially the social sciences. One of the biggest challenges is teaching them how to identify and use the best possible sources, and especially how to track back as far as possible to the source of a generally reported or accepted conclusion. That is, not necessarily a primary source, which is rarely absolutely necessary, or even desirable in a 1500 word student paper, but perhaps the academic paper which first reported the material or provided an influential early interpretation of the material, which has guided subsequent research and discussion on the topic.

So we go through all our searches and we find the right combination of search terms to find what we want and cast aside the irrelevancy and there it is--we find Exactly The Right Source. And the URL indicates it is at JSTOR, a wonderful online source of a variety of academic journals, but one which is subscription-based. In fact, I don't believe JSTOR even offers single articles. You have to be attached to a big institution which can afford the big subscription fee to get at all that good stuff, and that does not apply to most public high schools.

However, a brilliant friend of mine, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago (who just happens to be my future daughter-in-law), having heard my bellyaching about this at Thanksgiving has sent me this link to the Directory of Open Access Journals. Here's the headline:
This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. We aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 5832 journals in the directory. Currently 2432 journals are searchable at article level. As of today 484097 articles are included in the DOAJ service.
I haven't had a chance to use it yet -- the next batch of papers will be in the second semester, but a quick browse through shows it is pretty amazing. Most of it is way above the needs, and perhaps the reading ability of most of our high school students. But it is important to teach students that new information and ideas do not come from Newsweek or TMZ, but often from peer-reviewed academic journals, and that is better to source the journal itself than US News and World Report's digest of it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Learning by video games

My first principal (who should win a humanitarian award for letting me learn to be a teacher in her school) was, for all her faith in her students, leery of the use of games and competitions in the classroom. She was concerned that students who do not function well in a competitive environment will failure scenarios reinforced for them, and tend to detach and denigrate themselves. The trick, of course, is to come up with competitions that different students with different skill sets can succeed in. Hopefully everyone reading this knows that games which rely solely on rapid recall and response favor a certain limited mode of learning and thinking over others, sadly a mode which is celebrated in traditional school environments at the expense of other modes. I often used a review game in which I arranged students to compete against students of similar skill levels. (And how I enjoyed being proven wrong about a student who had learned more than I thought, even if it messed up the game.)

By and large, however, students do not take classroom games and competitions as seriously as we think. (I say nothing about league or team sports or other extracurricular competition, such as pageants or dance competitions -- they do not fall within the purview of a school-oriented blog.) They can shake off small defeats and return to the game with renewed determination to master it, just as they do with any video or digital game. I have never seen a kid go into a spiraling depression at being beat at Guitar Hero or World of Warcraft. Win or lose, they just want to play some more.

It seems foolish not to harness this. Not only is it a benignly addictive activity (well, maybe not so benign for those college freshmen who flunk out due to video game obsession), but a person playing a game is always learning something, especially a game in which, as is true for most digital games, the rules are not explained in advance. Like the so-called "real" world, one enters the environment with a general goal, but the specifics of how that is to be achieved and what obstacles will be encountered along the way is not laid out for the player ahead of time. This is what might be called simulated authentic learning.

Therefore, it is quite natural that someone would build a school on these very principles. So, as described in a New York Times article, we have the school Quest to Learn, which incorporates both the instinct to play and technology into a more global learning experience. Here is the money quote from Katie Salen, a co-designer of the school, who comes from a design and technology background, rather than traditional education:
The traditional school structure strikes Salen as “weird.” “You go to a math class, and that is the only place math is happening, and you are supposed to learn math just in that one space,” she told me one day... “There’s been this assumption that school is the only place that learning is happening, that everything a kid is supposed to know is delivered between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and it happens in the confines of a building,” she said. “But the fact is that kids are doing a lot of interesting learning outside of school. We acknowledge that, and we are trying to bring that into their learning here.”
We are still living with the lingering attitude that Learning is a thing that happens in a certain place at a certain time and that everything else is Real Life. But as George Ade wrote, "There are At Least Two Kinds of Education." Learning is going on all the time. The trick for educators and parents is to harness that process which is going to take place anywhere.

Games teach the brain a habit of mind, especially games in which the rules or even the goal are not pre-disclosed. It teaches habits of inquiry, of exploration, of an interest in "what works" not "what is the Right Answer which I am expected to vomit up on a school paper." That is real education, and I for one am going to be fascinated to see how this evolves and how game-playing can be used not just as an occasional bit of spice in the classroom, or a term-end review technique, but an essential structural element in education going forward.

Because one thing becomes clearer and clearer as I get older -- if there are rules in this life, there's nobody around to tell you what they are. You're going to have to find out for yourself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some reactions to new proposed school models

I have heard from friends who are not professional teachers (just amateurs like most people) in connection with the new school models I have posted about so far. One reaction is found in the first comment under the previous post (below). Here are two others:
Bill Vinson taught 4th grade to [three of my children]. [Two of the them] were the kind of student who would excel in most modalities, but Bill's style was really wonderful for [the one] who has ADD. [He] hadn't yet been diagnosed in 4th grade, but upon review by the school psychologist in between 6th and 7th grades, he was fairly classic. He lacked the hyperactive "H", and he also functioned well above grade level in most skills, so he was labeled as lazy and a clown rather than receiving a correct diagnosis and an IEP.

The classroom functioned as an "office". The students sat at round tables with an interlocking partition which make "cubicles". [My ADD child] had a folder which was his "inbox". If he completed his assigned tasks he could receive a bonus, which was no homework. Assessment was built into the assigned tasks. Upon mastery he moved on to the next skill level, or did "specials" which were enrichment activities. [My son] thrived in this environment where he learned a task and built upon it. When he was not bored he loved to learn, and the energy he used to use clowning was now focused on what he going to do next.

Bill gleaned stuff for the daily work folders from everywhere and anywhere. He had found the old SRA reading system and several other reading systems where he could track performance while letting the students work at their own pace. He had an incredible classroom library and he knew the books well so that he could integrate them into the childrens' reading for vocabulary, spelling or other enrichment. He also knew the kids and their interests.

Bill had a computer program for the kids to do their spelling tests so that they could test themselves. He used computer games for spelling and math reinforcement. The programs were personalized for each student so that they would be working on their own set of spelling words or math skills. He used every bit of technology he could find from an old Atari up to a pentium PC (remember this was like 1995....). The school only paid for one computer in the classroom so he dug up anything he could find and made it work.

[My son]'s daily work could still include some of the dreaded xeroxed work sheets, but since they were for skills he was learning rather than stuff he had mastered two years ago, they were interesting. He would also have assigned spelling time on the computer. He might have to complete 2 sets of SRA for reading and 2 units in the basal readers. There might be a science experiment or activity to complete and definitely something about the state of New York (because that is part of the mandated curriculum for fourth graders per the New York Regents).

An unexpected bonus of all this is that the students push each other to excel. There was a lot of healthy competition and mentoring in the classroom. Ben enjoyed helping his friends and wanted to do well.

Having all the students working individually rather than as a group does take much more organization and planning than having everyone move along at the same pace. But so worth it.
Bill sounds like a master teacher. And here's from a friend who has been a life-long student--in the good way:
I like [the method proposed in School of One]. It acknowledges the student for who they are and where they are at at that moment of time in their life when they are learning. It also gives room for the turmoil that can be happening within the student's home life.

These days with forclosures and all else it has to be very difficult for a student who has to keep up with a prescribed learning schedule that is rigid. There is something to be said for discipline, too. Students need that balance. I've done quite a bit of college, but during my days [in high school] when talk of independent study was run by me I liked it.

I've been accepted into Empire State College which is much like this for my last two years for my BA. Guided study appeals to me for learning Chinese because a formal classroom wouldn't serve me as I have so much on my own learning in that language. Still there are holes. Students like me who are interested in everything do well with this. I hope the school system you teach in is open to this. It's very ZEN.
Thanks for sharing, and I encourage more readers to do the same. So more models coming up...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Teaching what kids need to learn with varying modalities

Below is a link to a Freakonomics podcast discussing a NYC school experiment called "School of One." It combines three basic concepts in a new model for schooling. First, teach what the student actually needs to learn. Sylvan and Huntington tutoring systems have been practicing this for a long time. They have each student take a pre-test to figure out what skills they have mastered and what they need to work on. Then each skill is presented separately, given guided practice, independent practice and then assessed. The student continues to work on the skill until she demonstrates mastery (at Sylvan that was 80%.) You don't waste time teaching the kid what she already knows, and you don't let her get away with pretending to know something she doesn't.

This reporter compares this sort of individual tailoring of instruction to Pandora Radio. If you haven't tried Pandora, you have to. The report describes it, but in brief, it builds a library, starting with the musicians you tell it you like, tries to identify common characteristics and expose you to new music. If you don't like it, you can skip it, and the system learns what you don't like. They compare it favorably to conventional radio, where everybody gets the same tune (and the same commercials) at the same time, whether they like it or not.

How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System? | Freakonomics Radio
(Approximately 28 minutes)

Next is where School of one gets really interesting to me. They employ at least five different modalities of instruction, namely, large live instruction (teacher in a big box of kids); small live instruction (teacher in a more intimate box of kids); small group collaboration (each one teach one); virtual tutoring (one-on-one with a tutor you communicate with online in a Skype-type set-up); and independent practice (working on skills with the software). I would guess this is far better suited to basic skills and skills in the math, science and nuts-and-bolts literacy than it is for higher-level humanities. Still, this is just where we're weakest.

At first glance, it might seem as though this requires more teachers. But not necessarily. A lot of these students are working independently, or only require intermittent consultation or support from a teacher. My thumbnail estimate is that roughly the same number of teachers is needed, but that they are performing more different types of functions than they do now.

And third, and here's the real kicker for me -- students select their own modalities. They don't have a Child Study Team or psychologist telling them how they learn. It's student directed.

School of One has only been in place for a year, but so far it seems to be working well. At least, when I was a student, I had much rather been learning from a playlist than a curriculum.

Teaching kids real math with computers

I don't know much about math or teaching it. But I like the idea of teaching mathematical thinking instead of calculation. I defer to Conrad Wolfram, an actual mathematician who is actually concerned with education.

So? What do you think?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New models for schools and school buildings

Perhaps this is a road to frustration, but over the next few posts, I'd like to look at some new models for schools and school buildings that apply what we have learned over the past 30 years or so about teaching and learning. By and large, a high school teacher from 1870 would be completely comfortable with the way I am expected to teach most of the time in most American schools: 1 teacher with 25 kids seated at desks, stuffed in a box for between 40 and 80 minutes in a time. We now know that this serves about 15% of the students in front of us well. The rest of them are either forced to try and adapt or spin their wheels, which can interfere with the process for me and the other students.

I am not delivering any news here, but I hope I can spread some of the ideas people are playing with to get teaching to line up with what we know about learning. Above is the winning entry in a competition by Slate.com to come up with new models for the 21st century classroom. The hallmark of this design is the variety and flexibility of the space. As the article points out, the space for a single classroom incorporates
adjustable furniture, a messy art area, video screens large and small, communal areas for classes to share, carefully placed mirrors that allow for eye contact when a student and teacher sit at a computer together. Trish Fineran, the teacher on our panel of judges, loved that the tables were on wheels. She loved the integration of spaces enabling solo work as well as large and small group projects.
Check out some of the other leading proposals here. I hope I'll have the opportunity to highlight a few more from this competition, but first I want to get some other ideas from other sources in posts to follow.

In the meantime, I must still try and literally think outside of the box our 80-year-old high school buildings are made out of. I must try and make my plans more authentic, introduce more collaboration and capitalize on the skill sets and prior knowledge my students bring to the classroom. I don't know if my career will last to the day when we can fix these dreadful old buildings, but maybe I should pretend I'm already in one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Negative lessons

OK, it's hard to explain why I've only just seen this film for the first time, but boy does this sequence nail down the factory approach to education. As Paul Simon said, it's a wonder we can think at all.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Free serialized literature via Blog

From Neatorama comes a sub-blog called Bit Lit, in which they'll "be serializing entire novels and short stories—even some poetry, many published by major publishers like Random House. Every day, a new chapter until the entire story is complete.

"Plus, [they]’ll be interviewing authors and having contests to give away free, autographed copies of their books."

For teachers looking for alternative sources of free reading material, this could be very valuable.

Speaking of free reading material, I do not vouch for the legality or the permanence of this site, but it contains virtually all of the work of F. Scott Fitgerald, including that certain novel about that very rich person which many of us teach. It is Russian based, so it has all the texts in English and Russian, just in case you have an ESL student from Russia!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Whither teaching literature?

There's no point in disputing it -- reading from a digital device, especially an e-reader will not only replace paper school books, but for most subjects, it will be a far, far better way to deliver text. No longer will science and history teachers be forced to teach out of 20-year old texts, or have to update them with photocopied handouts. Publishers will provide regular updates, perhaps even during the school year. ("Leave your iPads with me tonight so we can run the updates.") Moreover, departments can switch textbooks rapidly when a new, better one comes out, although presumably publishers will require multi-year contracts, or at least, I would if I were a publisher. And let us hope that publishers will disable editing, so that the Texas Department of Education will not edit out offensive parts of US History or the theory of gravity (it is, after all, "only" a theory).

The question comes with the reading of literature. I am looking forward to being able to alter our reading lists with the click of a touchpad, rather than worrying about what books we have enough copies of in the bookroom, especially when I have three sections of the same course. I presume these new devices have better, more long-lasting batteries than our laptops. Henry James and Faulkner take some time to get through (no, I don't teach those authors in high school, but I do teach Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, neither of whom can be read the same way one reads The DaVinci Code). But even if the author is more readily readable, like a Steinbeck or a Vonnegut, a different order of reading is called for than for the absorption of text. The dichotomy used to be described as "lean forward" versus "lean back," although that terminology will probably fade as tablet devices become more common.

As this Smithsonian article describes, this is not the first time our relationship to text has changed drastically.
In ancient times, authors often dictated their books. Dictation sounded like an uninterrupted series of letters, so scribes wrote down the letters in one long continuous string, justastheyoccurinspeech. Text was written without spaces between words until the 11th century. This continuous script made books hard to read, so only a few people were accomplished at reading them aloud to others. Being able to read silently to yourself was considered an amazing talent.
Your grandchildren will probably think it weird that you used devices in which text was only available sequentially and it was non-searchable. (Hence the invention of the concordance.)

But a novelist or a short-story writer is not a journalist or a scholar. He is descended from the story-teller sitting at the edge of the fire, relating the tale of the great hunt of two springs ago, or of the ancient rivalry with the people on the other side of the great wood, or of the trip the warrior took to the land beyond the three hills. The story-teller does not want his story to be searched or cross-indexed or annotated or commented upon. He wants to stimulate emotion and imagination, not discussion and debate. Like it or not, story-telling is a top-down procedure. She tells, you listen. Maybe you ask, "What happened next?" but that is just a little ceremony designed to help whip up emotions among the audience. It is not really a challenge to the storyteller to come up with something different. Any parent of young children knows that the important thing about the story is that it must be EXACTLY THE SAME EVERY TIME. You cannot change the girl with fish in her socks to a boy with ferrets in his pants, or the magic grilled cheese sandwich into a magic Reuben. (You tell stories to kids your way and I'll tell them mine, alright?) Interactivity is NOT the point.

Not to mention that fireside. A place for contemplative reading is important. Yes, we do read books on buses and planes, but would we really chose to do so? My personal dream of a good place to read a book is under a maple solid enough to lean on in the early autumn, near a vigorous, but not too noisy, group of frisbee-tossers (including, hopefully, a talented Labrador or Spaniel). OK, that's a prettied-up picture of my own college days, but you get the idea. Reading a story is about being receptive for long periods of time, not being perpetually poised to respond, but giving the storyteller room to expand and explore on his tale.

All our oldest tales are sprawling, perhaps because they became add-on affairs. One storyteller picks up the story of Gilgamesh and Humbaba as mortal enemies, fighting to the death, and then, perhaps because of the temperament of his audience, or a desire for variety, or a desperate need to fill time or the perversity of his own nature, transformed it into a story of the enemies becoming bosom companions. (Side note -- the oldest written story in the West tells of enemies becoming friends, not the other way around. Is it because it is impossible to really know someone without coming to like something about them? One can only absolutely hate complete strangers.) And The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are ridiculous that way. They are so episodic and eventually, self-contradictory, that they can only have been created by a succession of story tellers, rather than a single source. They might be called the earliest iterations of fan fiction in civilization. But even fan fiction is not interactive. It says, "here is MY take on Star Trek/Lord of the Rings/Firefly. If you don't like mine, make your own."

So why do we like to tell and hear stories? It is hard to dispute that our greatest interest in life is ourselves. Stories tell us about other people. The inescapable conclusion is that we like to consider other people in order to compare and contrast them with ourselves. They are a way to add to our own storehouse of human experience without the possibility of difficult or painful consequences. I don't have to actually fight off the Sirens myself in order to learn how dangerous they are to me and to my family life. The agony of Sisyphus lets me know that my own sense of futility and frustration is not unique to me.

This would suggest that we are interested in facts for some other reason, to know how things "really are." But what use is it to know that Napoleon's invasion of Russia failed in 1812 in and of itself? These facts seem to be peculiar to this particular event, and that is as far as Hitler seemed to go in 1941. Hitler seems to have failed to use any analytical tools to understand why following roughly the same plan was likely to fail.

So why do I care? I have no intention of taking an invading army into Russia, and if I did, I wouldn't use an 1812 nor a 1941 army (nor would the Russians). I need to abstract the facts up to a higher elevation. If I am a military leader, I examine the topography and ordinance involved. If I am just a regular walking-around guy, I can take away the lesson that I don't embark on a difficult and dangerous task unless I am absolutely sure that I am completely prepared. I can draw a personal analogy between Napoleon's attempted invasion of Russia and, say, my desire to play in the NBA or date a super-model (I am hypothesizing a young, fit unattached version of myself here). I had damn well better be prepared.

So, the value of stories is their connection to myself and my experience. And the value of facts is their connection to myself and my experience. Data-based courses do this by analogy. Literature does it by metaphor. In either case, the essence of learning is comparing things to other things and finding the common points and the divergences. And the reason to absorb all these comparisons and contrasts is to inform our decision-making process. Essentially, all education is aimed at the way we make choices.

[What of the facts of math and science, you say? What do these have to do with life--other than the most quotidian use of arithmetic? The value of the facts derived in these disciplines is in the process rather than the facts. The facts in and of themselves are merely descriptors of the universe as we found out--they bear no lesson other than their own intractability (or tractability, as the case may be.) The means by which we arrive at scientific truth is a beautiful process, possessed of a pleasure akin to that of artistic creation. Physicist Richard Feynman called it The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Not the pleasure of knowing the truth, but the pleasure of learning or deriving the truth. And the truth is arrived at independent of our prejudices and preferences. Moreover, each scientific truth points to the next one. Each must be tested and tried and each uncovers a new question. It is an unending pursuit--thus scientific truth and philosophical truth share the common ground of being endlessly unfinished. All of science bears the single lesson - don't be satisified, don't stop, never be certain you know.]

Then there is no reading, no learning, no story, no fact that we cannot at some level or in some way connect to ourselves and a lesson for our own existence. What does this have to do with the way this data arrives in our brain cells? As the Smithsonian article says,
Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time. We review a movie while we watch it, we come up with an obscure fact in the middle of an argument, we read the owner’s manual of a gadget we spy in a store before we purchase it rather than after we get home and discover that it can’t do what we need it to do.
Perhaps it is only the velocity with which we react to what we read, simply a matter of how soon we begin the dialogue. Maybe literature itself will change. Perhaps we will see a great, epic, make-your-own adventure to be studied by students a hundred years hence. But as I wrote in my note on Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother, while the author has invited active engagement with his novel, even encouraging remixes and fan fiction, he is not permitting readers to actually alter the book itself. The story is the story is the story, and we cannot turn time back to get the story un-told. It is and will continue to be, what it is. [I note that the non-fiction book I Live In The Future And Here's How It Works by Nick Bilton promises interactive extensions of the book online, but the actual book website merely provides links to purchase the text in its entirety, external links to review of the book and a space for reader comments. This is hardly a true enrichment of the text.]

Doubtless e-readers will change our relationship to text, but we don't know exactly how yet. I only know that I'm not yet ready to take an iPad to the bathroom.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Changing educational paradigms - Animated

I love Ken Robinson, but I also love what this artist did with this talk about changing the way we think about education as a whole.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's the curriculum, stupid

There was a remarkable story in the New York Times yesterday about a 4,000-student school in Massachusetts which has had spectacular results in raising student achievement across the curriculum by simply requiring students to write across the curriculum. Even Phys Ed (which some of the teachers complained about). There were no mass firings, no technology gimmicks, no alteration of the work rules. Time ordinarily spent in routine administrative meetings were spent in retraining teachers and getting everyone on board with the goals and the plan.

Incidentally, the focus on writing confirms my own long-held belief, confirmed in law school, that organized writing requires organized thinking; that one way to calm down the chaotic thinking in our students' brains is to make them habitual writers.

The success story comes from a report presented in June 2009 at the conference for The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. Here's an excerpt from the abstract [emphasis mine]:
The main lesson from the presentations was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction...Leadership teams succeeded initially because they used their positional authority effectively to jump-start the change process. Then they built trust. More specifically, they demonstrated commitment through hard work and long hours; they studied research-based literature to expand their knowledge and competence; they persevered to follow through on the promises they made; and they found ways to remain respectful of peers, even when asking them to improve their performance. In these ways, leadership teams earned the respect of their colleagues and the authority to push people outside their comfort zones. With cultivated competence and earned authority, they were able to help their colleagues overcome the types of fear and resistance that so often prevent effective reforms in American high schools.
Gee, I thought the thing was to threaten to fire teachers and completely demoralize the faculty!

The gazillionaires all claim that small schools and charter schools are The Answer. But apparently, they're not. Like everything else in education, it all comes down to curriculum.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wrong "Superman"

A few years ago, someone wanted Nicholas Cage to play Superman. Would you believe that? Would you believe Nicholas Cage was Superman? Not very convincing.

Evidently, the producers of Waiting for Superman haven't made a convincing case either. I wrote a while back about the anticipation of this film. Now that it's here, it seems that it has built its argument about school reform around a bag of discredited and failed ideas which are described in this piece appearing on the Washington Post's education web page.

To give you an idea, here are the bold headings in the story:

*Waiting for Superman says that lack of money is not the problem in education.

*Waiting for Superman implies that standardized testing is a reasonable way to assess student progress.

*Waiting for Superman ignores overall problems of poverty.

*Waiting for Superman says teachers’ unions are the problem.

[Executive Summary - the school systems the film touts as successful are unionized with tenure.]

*Waiting for Superman says teacher education is useless.

*Waiting for Superman decries tenure as a drag on teacher improvement.

*Waiting for Superman says charter schools allow choice and better educational innovation.

*Waiting for Superman glorifies lotteries for admission to highly selective and subsidized charter schools as evidence of the need for more of them.

[Executive Summary - Admission to the good life in America should be distributed by chance. Forget about opportunity for everyone.]

*Waiting for Superman says competition is the best way to improve learning.

*Waiting for Superman says good teachers are key to successful education. We agree. But Waiting for Superman only contributes to the teacher-bashing culture which discourages talented college graduates from considering teaching and drives people out of the profession.

*Waiting for Superman says “we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country anymore. . . This means we are not only less educated, but also less economically competitive.”

[Executive Summary - It’s the market, and the disproportionately high salaries paid to finance specialists, that is misdirecting human resources, not schools.]

*Waiting for Superman promotes a nutty theory of learning which claims that teaching is a matter of pouring information into children’s heads.

[I thought this had been proven wrong at least 30 years ago.]

*Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world.

*Waiting for Superman says federal “Race to the Top” education funds are being focused to support students who are not being served in other ways.

[Just. Not. True.]

*Waiting for Superman suggests that teacher improvement is a matter of increased control and discipline over teachers.

*Waiting for Superman proposes a reform “solution” that exploits the feminization of the field of teaching; it proposes that teachers just need a few good men with hedge funds (plus D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee with a broom) to come to the rescue.

What a disappointment. Teachers and kids are going to have to keep waiting until the so-called grown-ups in charge realize that educational disparity is part of a systemic structural economic problem in our country, not something to be fixed with whiz-bang magic-wand solutions.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How to say everything exactly right

Working on a long post about a pretty interesting topic, but in the meantime, here's this:

What do I think about this? Don't axe me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teaching plays with audiobooks

English teachers are divided among themselves about the use of audio books for reading assignments. Many feel that offering audiobooks permits students to avoid the hard work of deciphering text visually, a skill they will need to acquire. I am of the school that listening to a story still requires deciphering and interpretive skills; I encourage students to use audiobooks while following in the book; and in many cases this is simply the only way many struggling readers will acquire the material at all. (I also believe there are more undiagnosed cases of reading disabilities than we know.) I have been known to distribute CDRs with Mp3 files of audiobook versions of books we're studying when I believed it would be of genuine assistance to the student.

There are a lot of audiofiles out there, but many of the free ones available (such as LibriVox) are made by volunteers, so you should check out how they sound before recommending them or supplying them to students.

The one less disputed use of audiobooks is in studying plays. Most of the time, my students are enthusiastic about reading aloud when they can take specific roles (as contrasted with reading ordinary prose). Sometimes, however, classes are shy or students are reluctant to read expressively. Also, Shakespeare can be very daunting to read alone, especially when reading "cold." And I usually pass over the text several times in the classroom to insure students have maximum exposure to this challenging material.

Often I used my own or borrowed recordings to rip Mp3 files. But I have located some links for free downloads of some plays, which I thought I'd share with you. As I find more, I'll share them with you. Most of the files are in compressed format and will require expander software. For Windows users like me, I like 7-zip, which is free and has been completely reliable. Some of these downloads are in Mp3 format.

Let's start with one that's on a lot of syllabuses--I've been teaching it almost my whole career: The Crucible.

Then there's Hamlet, and there are several versions to offer. First is the BBC Radio Version featuring Kenneth Branagh leading the Renaissance Theatre Company. It may not be absolutely complete, but it's about as complete as you can find. The files have been uploaded in three sections, which we shall refer to as one, two, three and four.

Next we have the recent production seen on public television here, with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and The Ghost. It is in a single Mp3 file.

And just for an exotic difference, here's the Nicol Williamson Hamlet of the late 1960s with Marianne Faithful as Ophelia, Anthony Hopkins as Claudis and one of the first angry-young-man interpretations. Again, this is an Mp3.

While we're on the subject of Hamlet, some Honors and AP teachers work with Tom Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. There is no audiobook of it yet, but here's a rip of the soundtrack of the film, which, while visually dull, tracks the text of the play very closely. Also, it has Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, who are perfectly cast as the title characters.

Speaking of honors classes and absurdism, there are two good recordings of Waiting for Godot. One is with Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall and the original American cast, in two parts, one and two.

The other is a starry BBC Radio version with Ian MacKellan as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, also split into Act I and Act II.

Meanwhile, back with Shakespeare, the next most popular play in the classroom has to be the (shhh!) Scottish Play. This is a BBC Radio version with Richard Eyre directing Kenneth Stott and Phyllis Logan, again split into sections one, two and three. (BTW, can't wait to see the television production later this year with Patrick Stewart as an unspecified Eastern European despot sporting a 20-something hot trophy wife Lady Macbeth. Interesting interpretation.)

Another fairly common play in the classroom is Othello, which can be heard in a production starring Anthony Hopkins, with Bob Hoskins as an inspired Iago, again split into parts one and two. The text is virtually complete.

I remember well reading King Lear during my senior year in high school, and I wish I could have heard John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and company. Files are divided, like Lear's kingdom, into parts One, Two and Three. The text is virtually complete.

If you crave novelty, you can also check out Sir Alec Guiness's Lear here, somewhat abridged.

Many schools teach The Tempest, which can be downloaded here with a cast led by Sir Ian MacKellan.

In my first school, I initiated the teaching of Shakespeare in our middle school. Reasoning that I wanted something readily understood, and that most high schools in the area taught Midsummer's Night Dream or Romeo and Juliet in the freshman year, I opted for Taming of the Shrew, which can be downloaded here in parts one and two.

It's a shame more schools don't teach Richard III, because for a history (or is it a tragedy), it's rollicking good fun. You can go with a complete rendition by Kenneth Branagh and cast, posted in parts one and two; or you can go with the abridged soundtrack from the film starring Laurence Olivier. (Branagh just spends all his time catching up with Olivier, doesn't he?)

If you're really intrepid, this is not very clearly marked, but there is an entire archive of all of the Arkangel Shakespeare recordings here, arranged so you can download just what you want. I'm sort of lukewarm about this library, as they don't boast as distinguished casts as most of the productions I've posted here, but it may be the only place to find a free copy of some of the lesser plays, in case you're teaching Measure for Measure, Titus Andronics or Two Noble Kinsmen.

I wanted to post audio versions of those all-time favorites, Julius Caesar, Midsummer's Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice, but I'm still looking for excellent free copies. If I find them, I'll post them. Meantime, you could use the Arkangel versions posted above.

And for a lighter touch, you can introduce younger students to Shakespeare with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by the Reduced Theater Company. The DVD is probably better for the classroom, but if you want an audio version, maybe for yourself to listen to in the car, the entire radio series of six half-hours can be found here in parts one and two.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Still trying to bell that cat

No teacher with any professional pride would argue that we shouldn't try to assess a teacher's competence, and determine who is effective, who isn't, and then increase the level of effectiveness. (One would hope that we would try new learning and training to make teachers more effective before we just toss them onto the curb, but that's another discussion.)

The problem is that we still can't figure out how to measure it. And the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan research tank has concluded definitively that the system of tying teacher compensation directly and mechanically to student test scores called "Value-Added Measurement" doesn't work.

Here are the final paragraphs of the Executive Summary of the report (emphasis mine):

Evaluation by competent supervisors and peers...should form the foundation of teacher evaluation systems, with a supplemental role played by multiple measures of student learning gains that, where appropriate, could include test scores. Some districts have found ways to identify, improve, and as necessary, dismiss teachers using strategies like peer assistance and evaluation that offer intensive mentoring and review panels.

These and other approaches should be the focus of experimentation by states and districts.

Adopting an invalid teacher evaluation system and tying it to rewards and sanctions is likely to lead to inaccurate personnel decisions and to demoralize teachers, causing talented teachers to avoid high-needs students and schools, or to leave the profession entirely, and discouraging potentially effective teachers from entering it.

Legislatures should not mandate a test-based approach to teacher evaluation that is unproven and likely to harm not only teachers, but also the children they instruct.
The biggest problem is, as any middle school science student will tell you, is that we cannot hold all the factors in student learning--other than teaching--constant. The study doesn't say this, but I can say it from experience, experience which has been borne out by colleagues I've discussed it with. There are two and only two reasons for student under-performance. One is an actual identifiable learning disorder or disability. In most cases, there is a way to work with or work around such a problem, provided is correctly identified. The other reason is problems at home. That phrase encompasses a whole heck of a lot of different things, from problems in the parents' marriage to financial difficulties to bereavements or dislocations--the list goes on and on. But the larger point is--problems at home are things that no teacher can do anything about, idealistic TV shows and movies to the contrary. You can't fix a kid's family, and you have no business trying.

This is not to say that we should give up trying to figure out who the good teachers are and why. (Incidentally, another study I read this week found that they could find no common factor of teaching style among effective teachers. So that means it goes deeper than questions of style.) Certainly, teachers can tell by observation who is teaching and who isn't. And by the way, students can tell, too.

And here's the dirty secret of teacher evaluation that no politician or administrator is going to tell you: when we come up with a good system, it's going to cost more than whatever we're doing now. Then, I suspect, all the angry taxpayers will have less interest in teacher accountability, and perhaps the professionals will be left alone to determine the best methods.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shirley Shirley bo Birley, Banana fanna fo Firley...

One year I was paired in a team-taught course with another former lawyer, about my age, in his first full year of teaching. As the first day began, he turned to me and said, "I'm terrible with names. I've never going to learn all those names." I said, "It's part of the job. It might be the main part of the job. You have to let each and every kid know that you know who they are and that you would never confuse them with anyone else."

"How can I do that?" he said. "Fake it," I said.

When I was a student, each year I arrived at school afraid that I had forgotten how to take notes, how to study, how to prepare how to think. This went right through the fourth year of night law school. Happily, I was wrong.

In similar fashion, I am convinced each year of teaching that this is the year my ability to absorb 100 to 125 new names (not including the kids I see in extra-curricular situations) will break down completely. It doesn't help that researchers tell us we have more difficulty identifying persons of races different than our own. (This has nothing to do with racism, just biology.)

One thing one can't do is to categorize students. Sooner or later, you will pull out the wrong name from the right category, and it will become obvious just how you see that student. "Oh--she's the Indian kid." "Oh, he's the science nerd."

There are tips all over the Interwebs about remembering names. I like these. There simply is no substitute for looking each kid in the eye, saying their name, and, as soon as possible, figure out the means by which you are going to connect that student to your content. If a student is excited about vampires, Camaros or lacrosse, that is a handle a teacher can use--especially in the humanities--to make a connection to the material to be taught.

I do like to latch onto interesting and unusual names--given or family--and see if there is some kind of story. Once I've stood and talked with a student and shared a story about themselves with them, they are much harder to forget.

Until next summer, anyway! :)

Monday, September 6, 2010

New goal for the school year - a mile past SPLAT!

Jules Feiffer. Just finished his fine memoir, Backing into Forward.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How smart is book smart?

I am hitting the books these days, not only to get ready for the school year but to prepare for another Praxis test in order to be certified as highly qualified in a field in which I worked, off and on, for 25 years, and which I have taught in the classroom for a number of years, by virtue of my two other subject-area certifications. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz:
Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity! Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have. But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma! Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universita Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D..Doctor of Thinkology.
With one hand we denounce this passive process in favor of "authentic" that is, real-world learning, with the other hand we base our educational credentials (and compensation) system on the conventional (and supposedly discredited) system.

The irony is that the field for which I am doing some book-larning in order to pass the test, theater, is an apprenticeship-based system, and has always been. New technologies and social structures have some impact on the the way theater is conducted and its subject matter. But the knowledge required to create theater is and has always been passed to the next generation on a one-to-one basis. There is no way to learn theater other than to do theater with experienced practitioners. Yes, you could start up all by yourself and be an auto-didact, but you will be doomed to re-invent a lot of wheels.

And that's what we do with new teachers. We make them re-invent wheels every day of the week. I was fortunate in that the among the first courses I taught was two double-sections of a team-taught course (Humanities--combined Social Studies and Language Arts). And as a matter of circumstance, I was teamed with four different teachers in four years. From two (luckily the first two) I took great positive lessons in classroom effectiveness; from the second two I mostly learned negative lessons and gained an opportunity to become a leader, at least in a small way. I have since gone on to teach in more conventional situations, and I realize how lucky I was. If I had been put out into the ocean of teaching in a boat by myself, I probably would have sunk long ago. But in most middle and high-schools, alone is what you are going to be most of the time. And teacher's room lunchtime anecdotes is no substitute for working with an experienced teacher and gaining a sense of what works and what doesn't.

And my career as a lawyer required some apprenticeship as well. A large firm handles this in a formal way. The place I started handled it more casually, but everyone involved understood that new lawyers must learn every day from more experienced lawyers, especially since rookie mistakes can be costly to clients and to the firm. Translated into educational terms, rookie mistakes can be costly to students and to the school. But we more inclined to laugh about those and treat them as inevitable, when they are so easily avoided.

We don't see the value of this passing-on of experience in schools, and so we won't spend the money to apprentice new teachers to more experienced ones. I don't mean meeting with a mentor from time to time; I don't mean professional development, in which we sit on our tails for hours at a time except for breaks to do a worksheet or to talk with each other (bleaah); I mean actual teaching in a classroom side-by-side for months at a time.

Oh well, back to the books. Let's see if they teach me anything I don't know.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art"

That quotation is heard in this trailer for Waiting for Superman, which opens in the next few weeks:

I just hope, even with the presence of Michelle Rhee, that they don't blame it on the teachers. It's a general social problem, compounded by post-Reagan conservatism, which hates public education and is taking steps to destroy it. Perhaps it's because public education is the greatest challenge to entrenched and unearned privilege we have. Without 1st-class free public education, democracy is impossible.

I just wonder if Waiting for Superman doesn't overlap with The Lottery, released earlier this year (not to be confused with The Lottery Ticket):

And of course, ramping up schools of choice (which is something I believe in) should not be done at the expense of standard geographic-based schools.

The existence of these two films is some indication that people are stoked about this issue and that perhaps the tidal wave is building which will make true postive change politically possible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

To live with literature

At the end of the recent post-apocalyptic disaster movie, The Book of Eli ***SPOILER ALERT***, a character who has been known to be carrying the above-described book turns out to be carrying it in his head, to be recited and copied down. In like fashion, the library that survives the anti-book regime of Fahrenheit 451 consists of refugees in the woods who have memorized entire books and indeed have "become" the books they carry.

In our haste to overtone generations of rote learning we have thrown at least one baby out with the bathwater, namely the virtue of memorizing and reciting literature. We used to say we "learned it by heart," and truer words were never spoken. A poem we know from memory is one step closer to piercing our hearts with its beauty and truth.

Back when I wrote about great teachers in the movies, I can't believe I forgot the teachers, especially Hector, in Alan Bennett's play (and movie) The History Boys. Hector is not a wholly admirable character (nor is he meant to be), but he has a remarkable facility and command of poetry, summoning it on the instant to illustrate or illumine each points he makes. Some critics say his choices are less than perfect, but for heaven's sake, how many of us have enough of a repertory of poetry in our head than we can always call up le vers juste at all times. Heck, I've been teaching them for years, and I don't think I could get all the way through either Sonnet 29 or 116. But Hector can cough up Coleridge or Keats at the drop of a platitude.

I profess to love poetry, but I don't live with it and in it the way I would wish. I suppose that should be a resolution this year. After all, if the young man in the video below can recite "Litany" by Billy Collins with such clarity, expression, and above all, delight, can't my students and I be expected to do at least as well?

Just for comparison, here's the poet reading (not reciting) the same work:

Doesn't the little boy do a better job? Mostly because he's memorized it. Not only does he gain in facility and flow, but the words learned by heart come from the heart.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What are we doing this for?

As we prepare to return to school, obsessed with operational detail--will we get the same room, have we prepared the material, do I have a homeroom this year, when will my prep be--it is good to reflect on why it is we are doing this at all.

By now I expect most people likely to read this blog have already read the remarkable valedictory speech given by Erica Goldson upon graduation from Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York. Being bright enough to become valedictorian, she is bright enough to realize that what was going on in her high school career did not resemble actual education, but compliance with a system which makes less and less sense to a lot of us with each passing year.

Here's some of the sharpest part of the speech:
We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don't do that.”

On the one hand, this makes me feel good. All those kids whose only question in class is "Will this be on the test?" are not necessarily indifferent to education; they have simply learned (because that is what they have been taught) that the only thing they will be rewarded for is what they have learned to regurgitate in tests and papers.

On the other hand, someone this smart has reached 18 and passed 12 or 13 years in the public school system without ever developing a passion about anything. Maybe this isn't a teacher's duty. But shouldn't young people be naturally passionate? One of the great things about sports and arts programs is the power they give us to tap that passion and develop powerful life lessons from them. But it's not just extracurricular activities. Couldn't Erica have become passionate about history or calculus or biochemistry? Why didn't it happen? Was it the mere abstract pursuit of grades? What was all that energy poured out for?

We put so much energy into the strugglers and the rebels--whether they be at the top or the bottom of the class, it's easy to let the slickly competent pass by.

I once saw the principal of my charter school sit with our 7th graders--all 52 of them--and speak at length about the positive characteristics of each and every student in that room. I resolve to make an effort to the same for all 100-125 students I expect to have in my course load, and not to bundle them into a type or a grouping. Each one.

Update on Mt. Olive's "No D" policy

As I noted in my earlier post, Mt. Olive's decision to eliminate "D" from the grading system only makes sense if they have a policy to "catch and rescue" the additional students who will now be considered failing. A follow-up story in the New York Times says that they will indeed have a "watch list" for student tutoring, followed by intervention in the form of a night school called "Sunset Academy" which is not free, spreading the pain to parent and student alike. (The district expects this will cost less than $10,000.)

The expected outcome is that students who have precisely calculated how to achieve a D and no more, will now learn how to earn a C minus. They will, however, have learned a little more material, I suppose. Nonetheless, one way or other, D student or valedictorian, we just seem to teach them how to game the system.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

When can we stop acting like a 19th century agricultural society?

Although I grew up in a rural part of my state--I even had classmates who belonged to 4H--I did not have to return home in time to milk the cows or muck the stable or whatever it is that farm kids do in the late afternoon. Nor was it necessary for me to help bring in the harvest at the end of the summer. My dad worked at Bell Labs.

35 years later, we are still running our schools on a farm schedule. The summer thing is one of those impenetrable entrenched cultural habits, compounded with the cost of adding air conditioning to buildings built in the first half of the 20th century.

But the early morning start and mid-afternoon finish has ceased making sense generations ago. In fact, cops will tell you that most juvenile arrests happen between 3:30 and 6:00. Moreover, the schedule has a negative impact on student success, especially in high school. A much-reported experiment at a Rhode Island private school pushed the schedule back to start at 8:30, deducting five minutes from each class to keep dismissal time the same.
Among the results: The portion of students reporting at least eight hours of sleep on school nights jumped from about 16 percent to almost 55 percent; reports of daytime sleepiness dropped substantially, from 49 percent to 20 percent; first period tardiness dropped by almost half and students reported having more time to eat a hot, more nutritious breakfast. [Dean Patricia] Moss believed the healthy breakfast was a strong contributor in the increased alertness throughout the mornings.
So why isn't your district going to adopt this suggestion? First, it's all about the buses. Most districts in my part of the country are apparently bus companies which hold classes in order to keep the students occupied between bus rides. Bus schedules and costs drive most scheduling questions.

Second, and this is the bigger issue, schools are run for the convenience of parents, or more accurately, for parents' employers. Classes must start as close to when Mom and Dad leave the house as possible. Now that employers have found that society was willing to have both parents work in order to have the same purchasing power as one parent had 40 years ago, everyone has become yoked to the needs of business institutions. Wouldn't it be marvelous if a business took the attitude, as long as you're getting the work done we don't care when and where you do it. I understand a retail operation can't work that way, nor indeed a school, but I spent most of my life in the private sector where I believe the need to have everyone gathered in the same place at the same time is vastly overrated.

Maybe if we had to start at 8, we could start high school with a low-key discussion class, deal with character and ethical issues and community building, rather than start right in with cramming data down their throats along with the lattes. Assuming schools are interested in character and ethics, of course...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

No more "Gentlemen's Ds" in Mt. Olive

Doctors in a small New Jersey town have decided that patients may no longer be "very sick." Starting next week, all patients must be either "fair to middling" or dead.

That may not be fair, but that's how illogical the decision to eliminate "Ds" which was announced by the school board in Mt. Olive, NJ sounds. Look, I understand the problem. I admit, that when I taught some marginal seniors, I may have been part of the problem. There were people who received Ds, who were entitled to Fs, but I was not prepared to stand up to the maelstrom hat would ensue if a student did not qualify to graduate. So I hope first of all, that this superintendent is ready to back up the teachers who are ready to say that a student has failed to fulfill the qualifications of the course.

And perhaps this policy is more honest about what the grades mean than the official line usually is. Officially, an A is "very good", a B is "good", C is "average," and D is "adequate." But we know in fact that, in most cases, B means "mediocre", C means "pretty poor considering your abilities, young lady" and D means "I should fail you but your parents are nuts and I can't deal with the hassle." C is simply not an acceptable grade for the children of middle class parents who expect their child to attend a four-year college. So at least Mt. Olive's new policy acknowledges what a low mark C really is for most families.

I note that the passing mark will move from 65 to 70. Interestingly, at my first school, a charter middle school which took grading pretty seriously, 70 was a D, not a C. So much for charter schools lowering standards. A "D" to us did not mean, "get out of here and stop bothering us," it meant "we had all better figure out what this kid needs."

So what grade will Mt. Olive use to indicate a student is in trouble? Is a "C" mean trouble, or will they have to earn an "F" in order to get Guidance or the Child Study Team involved? And most importantly, what is the remediation plan? If the plan is to fail more students, there better be an infrastructure in place to pick up these kids and help them develop the skills they are lacking. The news stories (naturally) say nothing about that. Mt. Olive may have a great system in place--they better, or this decision will have made the problem far worse. Do they have instructors who are expert in alternate modes of learning and different types of intelligences? Are they prepared to everything necessary for success, or must we cut our losses? And what does that mean in the era of No Child Left Behind?

And does any of this address the student who underperforms due to emotional problems? Can we get parents to agree not to have fights, get divorced, get grandparents to agree not to get sick or die, get classmates to agree not to tease or harass students, or get the media to quit lowering the girls' self-esteem while making the boys narcissists? Or do we have to give these kids a failing mark until they work through their issues of maturity and personal development? Are we prepared to put them on hold academically until they grow up? I don't know a lot of families that will go along with that plan.

One thing I will guarantee the Mt. Olive plan will produce: students who used to know precisely how much and how little to do in order to earn a 65 will recalibrate so as to earn a 70. And some proportion of those students are completely brilliant, who reject the conventional demands of our schools for a multitude of reasons--they may be oppositional, they may have contempt for the system or the curriculum, they may have their own agenda for growth that does not permit time for As in schools. Yes, some of them are just plain lazy, but in my experience that is a very small group. Most young people understand the rewards inherent in pleasing adults, and displeasing them with poor marks is most often a deliberate choice. (For the purposes of this paragraph, I leave aside the question of genuine learning difficulties, which are often compounded with emotional difficulties.)

I wish Mt. Olive well in the effort to raise standards. But I hope they won't go the way of those Texas school districts who improved their grade averages by kicking out poor students and cooking the gradebooks. Some of those provided the falsified "success stories" that helped get NCLB passed in the first place.

It's a bit like declaring a cure for leprosy by calling it advanced acne.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rip this book now!

The first thing you need to know about the novel Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is that you can read the entire novel, right now for free, and so can your students, if they have internet access.

The second thing you need to know is that a large proportion of your students will really like this book. It is, after all, all about adolescent rebellion, and rebellion that succeeds.

The third thing you need to know is that the subject of the book is one of the most important challenges and debates facing our democracy today: the tension between increased security against terrorism and individual liberty.

The fourth thing is that it is entertaining and fast-moving. Some things are a bit over-explained, but that seems to be a feature of YA fiction, and it makes sense because so few of my students seem to be aware of how things work outside of their own very narrow world. Partly this is a function of youth in general, but we are also developing into a more and more insular society, cocooning our kids away from reality. Which is one fun and liberating aspect of this book--the high school-age characters in the book are able to move freely around the greater San Francisco area where the story is set, and are quite knowledgeable about the city and its 20th-century cultural and political history.

The point is, if you wanted to (and were permitted to) teach this book, you would not need to allocate one penny to acquire copies, because here it is free on the Internet in every format you want, plain text, html, .pdf, iPhone, Kindle, Palm, even an embeddable Facebook version, and many more.

Not only does author Cory Doctorow, host of the very entertaining site BoingBoing, invite readers to reformat the book, he even invites remixes, mash-ups, parodies and fanfic--which could be a leaping-off place for a writing assignment for your students.

The book is not perfect--I have my own demurrals--but it is intelligently written, with much reliable information on encryption and security. In any case, it is thought-provoking and likely to spur reflection and discussion in your class. If you doubt me, go ahead and read it yourself. It won't cost you a dime.

Retention and rehearsal capacity

This is why students hate when you postpone a test:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Robots must learn in order to teach

There was a piece in the New York Times a few days back about robots being developed for classroom use. The scientists involved in this effort or quick to disclaim any intent or desire to displace the human teacher, but only to supplement the teacher, much in the way one might use an aide (a type of support which has become very vulnerable here in NJ, given our current budget crisis).

The takeaway from this story is twofold (beside the need for cheaper workers in schools). One is that facial recognition is rapidly increasing in AI, and not just identification of faces, but being able to read moods and feelings. The knowledge gained in this effort might be useful in working with autistic students who have difficulty reading other people. (The scientists had to learn how important social interaction is in primary learning.)

The other thing is that one definition of a good teacher is a person who knows how to learn. As the article says, "If robots can learn to learn, on their own and without instruction, they can in principle make the kind of teachers that are responsive to the needs of a class, even an individual child."

Then maybe those robots can train new teachers.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Real courage

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, marking its 50th anniversary. Below is a segment from a documentary about the book now in process.

As a teacher privileged to teach your beautiful book, thank you, Miss Lee.