"[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, April 27, 2010

Applying problem solving to...uh...solve problems

"Recall a time when you really loved something: a movie, song, an album or a book. You wholeheartedly recommend it to someone you really like. You anticipate that reaction, you wait for it. It came back, and the person hated it. That is the exact same state I spend every working day of the last six years. I teach high school math."
--Dan Meyer, March 6, 2010, addressing a TEDx. Dan teaches high school math outside of Santa Cruz, CA. In this brief 12-minute talk, he explores the intersection of math instruction, multimedia, and inquiry-based learning. His blog can be found here.

As I think I've mentioned. I don't teach math, but I think that understanding how math is taught and how it can be taught can be instructive to all teachers. Because it is a process about process. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, a math teacher cannot fall into the trap inherent in Social Studies, Science and sometimes in English, in which we become enraptured by our content and we start shoving the kids a big pile of "stuff", often referred to as "facts." Math, as a discipline, must always be a verb and not a noun.

At their best, Science teachers know this--that's why they have labs. Hopefully, they do not tell the students too much about how a given experiment should end up. (I can remember fudging results to match the prediction--don't blame me, it started with Gregor Mendel.)

In Language Arts, this is why I argue against diagramming sentences. It tells you a lot about what things are called and how to categorize them. It's a very useful tool for linguists studying syntax, especially in comparing languages or dialects. One teacher friend who advocates diagramming tells me the students love them. But that is not an argument in their favor. One thing students really like is questions for which there are certain and "right" answers. They hate uncertainty, ambiguity and personal interpretation. But that's the way the world is built.

And most importantly, I do not know any way to draw a line between skill in diagramming and improved writing. There may be a connection, but it has not been demonstrated to me. I believe the only way to teach writing is to (a) require a lot of it; (b) give a lot of feedback; (c) require rewriting. And the writing task must itself be authentic and have an intrinsic interest to the student. Exercises in literary analysis are lovely for college students of literature, but to induce facility in writing (if not love for it), there must be motivation.

My greatest music teacher was Lew Spratlan, not because of any information or wisdom he imparted. I took Composition with him and there was one simple, hard and fast rule of the class. "Come each day with a new piece of music to demonstrate, or don't come." We learned that the most important tool for writing music was the seat of the pants--that is, learning to apply that portion of the body to a chair in order to write. And write. And write.

When I taught general music, I made sure that students were making some kind of music at least two or three times a week--not just listening, or learning terminology or other non-functional facts. (I can't tell you how much commercial music instruction material tells you all about how many children Bach had, while telling you nothing about how he put music together.)

This corresponds with Mr. Meyer's example of waiting for the container to fill. Everyone wants to know how long that will take, even if they don't care the least about how to calculate the volume of an object. A more detailed explication of this approach to math instruction is Lockhart's Lament, which I stumbled across for obvious reasons.

This is hard, it's labor-intensive, and it means you won't "cover" as much "stuff." This runs counter to the politically-driven high-stakes testing system we have in place now. But this is what we teachers must juggle today. (I just hope the politicians who advocate these multiple-choice tests have got lots of jobs waiting for our students which involve taking multiple-choice tests. Because that system will not teach anyone to think.)

"'You can know the name of that bird in all languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing--that's what counts.'" -- Richard Feynman, quoting his father in WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?

"Come now and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18)

As I write this, thousands of New Jersey high school students are leaving their classrooms to protest the effects of proposed and to-be-proposed budget cuts for school districts across the states, especially insofar as it concerns classroom size, special programs, and extracurricular activities, including sports. We have all been high school students and can recognize the mixture of passion and commitment with a dash of opportunism--this is, after all, a semi-respectable way to cut class. I hope George Will does not lie about this and tell the country that teachers egged them on, as he has done previously, but I don't have much faith in Mr. Will's ability to make his case without a misstatement or exaggeration.

Everyone acknowledges that there is a budget crisis and that spending in New Jersey is out of control and has been that way for a long time. (Has no one noticed that most NJ teachers are also property-taxpayers?) But I can't help feeling the parallel with the banking crisis--that the people paying the price are not the people who made the mess. Certainly pension recipients were not the ones who made disastrous decisions about how to fund pensions, or to raid funds to cover operating costs.

But teachers are caring people--they have to be. We would like to help. We would like to do our part. Of course, it would have been better if we had been asked nicely, and offered some respect, instead of being bullied and demonized. But I don't expect a former prosecutor like Gov. Christie to know much about leading and motivating people. Prosecutors dictate terms to defendants and to judges and, in Bergen County at least, everyone lays down. They are not required to master the tools of persuasion.

Someone who has mastered the tools of persuasion is Dr. David Verducci, superintendent of Glen Rock Schools. About a month ago, he wrote a heartfelt and eloquent open letter to the governor, offering some other ways around this budget crisis and the problems of schools spending. Here is the first paragraph of the body of his argument:
1. Make us -ALL of the stakeholders here-a partner in the process. This first item is the most important of all. Please stop talking ill us! Talk to us! We are not the enemy! Make us a partner in the endeavor to fix New Jersey. From the superintendent of schools to the part-time cafeteria worker, the overwhelming majority of us who spend our professional lives in the public schools are hard-working people who want to see children succeed. Building a coalition with the educational community for the betterment of the common good will not happen if you simply continue to dictate the terms of change. We have a lot of good ideas. We can help you accomplish your goals. We also want things to be different, but true systemic change will not take root if the only tools you use are blunt instruments that punish instead of encourage. We are people of intellect who want to be treated as such, not like the victims of a school-yard bully. Governor, I think you will find a very receptive audience among educational professionals and the citizens-at-Iarge if you simply approach the whole situation differently. Leaders don't just demand or dictate. They build consensus through persuasion and reason. Change this dynamic and you have a chance to change things even beyond your own greatest aspirations.
I urge you to read the entire letter here. Not everything in this letter would be likely to make the NJEA happy. But as we said in the 20 years I was a transactional attorney, a deal in which one party gets everything they want is by definition a bad deal. This letter shows more of the kind of thoughtfulness and leadership that I wish both sides in this battle could display.

A couple of points I really like--we could save a lot of money without the redundant and uninformative compulsory high-stakes multiple-choice testing, which is now going on in at least 7 of 12 grades in every district. These tests have not been proven to demonstrate anything, certainly not anything to do with real learning. Second, something that teachers and good administrators know well: "10. Use positive incentives not negative inducements to promote change." Is there anything more commensensical to a teacher?

I hope the kids get it right today with their protest, and that the press in turn reports it right.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Another great movie teacher

Why didn't any of the advertising or promotion for the film Precious (2009) say that it was, in part, a film about an inspiring teacher as well as the liberating power of literacy?

As far as I can remember the publicity for this film when it opened last fall, it was all: overweight girl--sexually abused--expecting second baby--Monique plays horrible mother--terrible circumstances--escapes into fantasy, etc., etc., etc.

Were they trying to cover up the fact that most of the running time of the film she is enrolled in a successful alternative high school program with an extremely hard-working and empathetic teacher and a supportive community of similarly troubled, but striving young women? Was that shameful? Frankly, I avoided the movie at first because it was advertised as a depression-fest about people treating each other terribly, and only caught up with it on video this spring.

But the story (both novel and film) is about a young woman who escapes and transcends her environment, mostly through the power of the written word. Shouldn't we have been insisting that everyone, especially disadvantaged young women, see this movie? Even today, searching for an image on-line to illustrate this post, most of them show the star, Gabourey Sidibe, scowling, being taunted or otherwise looking miserable. There were no pictures available showing the class working together, learning, reading, writing, discussing, which, as I said, takes up much of the action of the film.

And what's wrong with a story about a great teacher who changes a child's life? Is that bad box office now? Do we only show teachers if they have drug problems or are abusing the children?

Not only does this teacher have an effective student-based literacy program, encouraging personal writing in a way that is difficult in a conventional middle-class schoolroom, but she goes above and beyond finding a halfway house for a student and even inviting her into her own home to show her another model for a happy, loving home.

The film underlines a point I try to make with students and parents all the time. Reading is the only real way we can get inside another person's head. Yes, we can watch movies and TV, but when you see a person's face, you cannot see what their eyes see. Only the word can do that--imperfectly, to be sure, but without an intervening medium or interpreter. The word goes straight from the writer's brain to yours and sets off explosions that cannot be stopped.

And all the publicity and discussion about this film will not tell you that Precious has a hopeful ending--not that all the problems are fixed, or that the title character's future is assured, but that she has a future, and the knowledge that she is loved.

Because no one will talk about this--teaching is an act of love. Why do it at all, if not for love?