"[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

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A couple more good teachers

I have a more complex and ambitious post I have been working on, subject to interruption for Midterm Exams and closing out the marking period. But I am feeling a bit guilty for not updating for two whole weeks. So in the meantime, a couple more examples of teachers I find admirable.

The first is my lovely sister's lovely husband, Don Loprieno, who has long worked as an historian, curator and historical interpreter. He is currently semi-retired, although he is working hard selling this book, which he wrote and for which he provided the photo illustrations.

That's the commercial--here's the show. This is Don not only demonstrating the proper loading and firing of an 18th century musket, but also explaining the derivations of three common phrases in the English language, "flash in the pan," "Don't go off half-cocked," and "Lock, stock and barrel" (hence the title of the video).

Here is another favorite non-classroom teacher of mine, Max Morath. Max has been playing and talking about ragtime for over fifty years now, in the concert hall, theater and on television. I first encountered him in this series (or one like it) on what we called "educational television" in the olden days. I would compare him to Leonard Bernstein in his ability to elucidate musical issues for non-musicians. In this episode he addresses the importance of business in the music business, going back to the early 20th century.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

High expectations vs. Uniform expectations

I am not breaking ground or being controversial when I say that most teachers accept the idea of accountability AND of raising academic standards. The question remains how that is to be done and how do we avoid turning the means into the end.

In that connection, there is a very cogent piece by Alfie Kohn in the current issue of Education Week called Debunking the Case for National Standards: One-Size-Fits-All Mandates and Their Dangers. The heart of his argument is as follows:
Are all kids entitled to a great education? Of course. But that doesn’t mean all kids should get the same education. High standards don’t require common standards. Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence – or equity. (In fact,
one-size-fits-all demands may offer the illusion of fairness, setting back the
cause of genuine equity.) To acknowledge these simple truths is to watch the
rationale for national standards – or uniform state standards -- collapse into a
heap of intellectual rubble.
This disconnect is evident every time you put the current Core Curriculum Content Standards next to a sample HSPA, which is the current high school graduation-requirement test in New Jersey. For example, here are some of my core content standards:
  • Analyze how an author's use of words creates tone and mood, and how choice
    of words advances the theme or purpose of the work.
  • Compare and evaluate the relationship between past literary traditions
    and contemporary writing.
  • Recognize the use or abuse of ambiguity, contradiction, paradox, irony,
    incongruities, overstatement and understatement in text and explain their effect
    on the reader.

You show me the standardized multiple-guess, true-false, matching test that will effectively measure any of those. And yet those tests, despite DOE undertakings to the contrary, are the actual standard to which teachers and students are to be held.

The core curriculum content is one animal, and the standardized tests are another, and the twain does not meet. We have built a system around tests which measure things other than the things we are supposed to teach.

Can't wait to see what our politicians will propose to solve the contradiction...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inspiration: additions and clarifications

Shortly after posting an entry about inspiring teachers from the movies, I realized I had omitted François Marin, the committed but harried teacher in The Class (original French title: Entre les murs).

Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, and based on himself and his own autobiographical novel is a realistic mix of strong and weak qualities as a teacher. As stated, he is engaged with his students and wants to reach them where they live, although he must cope with a curriculum which requires he teach material which is less than urgent to his kids. ('Twas ever thus.) But Bégaudeau loses his temper and sometimes needs to be right. He makes a foolish intervention with a student on the playground in order to try to protect his own position. His school also has an insane policy which puts students on the disciplinary committee, a policy with which Marin seems to agree. So he may not be a good model, but he is an admirable and accurate reflection of the real life of a good teacher with good intentions.

John Keating of Dead Poets Society means well, too, and he is a heck of a lot of fun. I am sure most English teachers like me envy his brilliant first class of the semester, with his memorable presentation of the idea, "Carpe diem." And his kinesthetic lesson about meter, marching around the courtyard is also admirable, perhaps worthy of borrowing. But he is too careless about the ultimate effect of his teaching on his students. Yes, it's great to get kids so charged up about poetry that they meet outside of class to read it together. And it is good to teach children, American children anyway, to question authority. But the rebellion they learn ultimately becomes dangerous to themselves. Admittedly, the degree to which it is destructive was unforeseeable. But Keating leaves himself open to being turned into a symbol for the students, a symbol which the school must eliminate and destroy. And it is always better to remain a real person than to be a symbol. So I should not be surprised with myself that I left the exciting Mr. Keating off my earlier list--I should want to be at least as exciting as he is, but not so hazardous, both to himself and his students.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Authentic learning at work

Here's a video of Dave Eggers, principal contributor to McSweeney's and author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius talking about a privately-generated public-service education project that only caught fire when the participants stumbled over real-world authentic tasks for the students. Very exciting.