"[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

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.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Films aren't "based off of" books, they're "based on" books. A house isn't "built off of" a plot of land, it's "built on" land. The first way sounds idiotic and illiterate.

Books aren't "released," they're published. Films are "released." (Except for the ones that escape by themselves.)

Plays aren't "shown" (as in "Fences is showing at the Cort Theatre" they are produced or presented. Movies, paintings and houses are shown.

If everything is going to be the same as everything else, why have different words at all? Why not just have one word that means everything?

As you were.